Consider this question for a moment: if your adolescent children had to live on their own today, do you think they could do it? It’s just a hypothetical question for most of us since our adolescents still have several more years at home before they would be expected to live independently. The question does prompt thoughts of preparation, however. The adolescent years are all about transition. It is during this period that children prepare themselves for adulthood.

One important aspect of our parenting during this phase is helping adolescents gain the skills and knowledge they will need to live on their own as adults. This transition phase can be a bumpy one for teens and adults alike. During this time, adolescents’ brains are growing and changing rapidly. One day they may seem almost like adults, and the next day they may forget their homework or leave house keys on their desk at home. By gradually adding responsibility to teens’ lives, we can work with their growing brains to learn the skills they need without overwhelming them.

Are We Raising Responsible Teens?

Although preparing teens for adulthood has always been a concern for parents, there has been an increase in discussion about helping teens gain responsibility in recent years. Recent statistics bear this out. In a survey of adolescent parents, researchers found some startling responses: only 8% of parents were confident their teen could make a doctor’s appointment on their own. Additionally, 25% of parents believed their teen could use the correct dose of an over-the-counter medication. In terms of non-medical tasks, about 46% of parents believe their teen will save money for the future.

While some of these responsibilities might seem lofty for young teens, the parents surveyed for these findings had older teens (ages 17⎼18). Thus, the concern among some parents is that their teens will not be responsible enough when the time comes for them to live independently.

The reasons for this seeming lack of responsibility are multifaceted. Some parents’ responses indicate that they don’t feel their child is mature enough to handle issues like medical appointments, or that they feel their child doesn’t have the time to take on such responsibilities. Other parents admit that they are part of the reason why their teens aren’t more responsible. About one-quarter of parents said they don’t give their teens these responsibilities or that it’s just easier or faster for them to do it themselves.

These statistics, therefore, offer us insight into the challenge at hand: intentionally fostering responsibility in our teens while perhaps also overcoming our own mindset challenges in preparing them for the future.

Strategies for Fostering Responsibility

The inherent challenge in helping our children gain responsibility comes from the fact that we, as parents, spend those initial years of parenting doing basically everything for our children. When our children are young, taking care of all their needs is our primary job. We feed them, clothe them, bathe them, and help them go to sleep. This becomes such a habit of our existence that it can be challenging to hand over some of those responsibilities to our children as they reach adolescence. One helpful way to begin passing along responsibility to teens is to include them more and more in family decision-making. Encouraging teens to voice their opinions about family decisions and really listening to their input can make them feel not only more responsible but also more engaged in family life. This doesn’t mean that the family follows all their suggestions, but at least their perspective is heard and considered.

Fostering Responsibility

Contributing to the family in tangible ways, of course, also helps teens gain responsibility and skills. What many families call “chores” can also be considered as “family contributions” or a way of gaining valuable life skills. Beginning from an early age and continuing throughout adolescence, children can help with many household tasks like laundry, dishes, trash collection, cleaning, and more. Contributing to the ongoing functioning of the family has been shown to contribute to teens’ feelings of responsibility as well as their overall well-being.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of allowing teens more responsibility for their own lives is when they make mistakes. As parents, we naturally want to shield our children from disappointment, frustration, and pain. However, a key part of helping teens gain responsibility is allowing them to make mistakes and experience the consequences of those mistakes directly. By not “rescuing” them from the consequences of their mistakes or protecting them from occasional disappointment or frustration, we are actually helping them build up greater feelings of responsibility.

The Role of “Autonomy Threat”

One crucial aspect of teen development that impacts their mindset during this phase is how adults respond to their need for autonomy. For the most part, teens do crave autonomy and develop greater responsibility during these years. However, they are also very sensitive to what researchers call an “autonomy threat.” That is, if teens feel that adults aren’t allowing them autonomy, listening to their opinions, or feeling controlled, they are more likely to resist adult directions or opportunities to collaborate with adults. This concept is important to keep in mind as we try to foster responsibility in teens. Their need for autonomy can be an important motivational factor for them taking on more responsibility. However, if we attempt to control their choices and decisions too much, they may “shut down” and give up on trying to take on new responsibilities. Thus, by balancing teens’ need for autonomy with our need to establish rules and expectations, we can help foster responsibility so they are well-prepared for the future.

Moving Towards Independence

As children reach their adolescent years, the emphasis on fostering more and more responsibility in them becomes paramount. While most teens have a desire for greater autonomy and responsibility, we have to balance our need to keep them safe while still encouraging their independence. It can be a tricky balance, but with gradual movements towards greater responsibility, we are helping to ensure their success in independent adult life.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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