If you have an adolescent in your life, you’ve probably heard them say, “It’s not my fault!” more than once. And maybe you’ve snapped back, “Of course it’s your fault,” since it’s obvious to you where the responsibility lies. Once you take a breath and calm down, you might wonder how you can help this young person learn to be accountable.
“Teaching accountability is an evolving process,” said Jason McIntyre, a clinical social worker at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, AZ. Teenagers are often self-centered, and in their minds the world revolves around them and their friends. They are not adept at grasping abstract concepts that are outside of their own world of experiences. While they are becoming more independent, they don’t yet understand how their words and actions impact others.
Here are four tips you can use to help adolescents learn accountability.
1. Use storytelling
“I have found the best way to help even a 12-year-old to understand accountability is to use storytelling, McIntyre said. Stories can help young people understand that the adults, parents, teachers, and therapists in their lives were once teenagers. Share a story that centers around accountability or responsibility, and then ask questions:
- How would you feel if that happened to you?
- Do you think that what happened is fair?
- Do parents and teachers/therapists have feelings?
Storytelling gives teenagers the opportunity to analyze their thoughts and reactions.
2. Ask questions about feelings
“Have the teenager identify their feelings and emotions,” McIntyre said. Ask:
- What do you feel like?
- What happens in your mind and your body when you experience these feelings?
- What does it feel like when you are not listened to?
Let them know that adults experience similar reactions to feelings, and that part of becoming an adult is managing those feelings and emotions effectively and appropriately.
3. Stay open and nonjudgmental
Teenagers can get on your last nerve. And yet if you lash out, you’re not helping them grow and mature. “As parents, therapists and educators, we must be aware of our feelings, emotions, reactions, and responses,” McIntyre said. “The key is to have a nonjudgmental stance.” When adults keep themselves in control, adolescents build trust in them.
4. Set firm limits and be consistent
Adolescents crave structure even though they probably won’t admit it, and they will likely bristle against your limits. “When adolescents know what to expect, they tend to be less manipulative and oppositional,” McIntyre said. “Consistency is your best intervention.”
The bottom line
Teenagers want to learn how to become adults, and it’s our responsibility to help them get there. “Responsibility is a concept developed over time and it varies among individual teenagers,” said McIntyre. “We as the adults must interpret and help teenagers see life outside their ‘box.’” By following these tips, you should slowly see signs of progress in the adolescents in your life.
To learn more
For teenagers whose struggles stem from behavioral issues, family therapy can help. To make sure you give your teen enough room to make decisions on their own, find out whether you’re a lawnmower parent. And if you’re parenting adolescents who are coming to terms with their sexuality, here are some ways you can support and empower your LGBTQ+ teen.