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Susan Says: Dear Susan



Dear Susan,

I have two teenagers currently attending a local high school. I just found out that my son may be in jeopardy of not graduating from high school. What can we do? Where did we go wrong? I need to make sure my daughter who is one-year younger does not find herself in the same predicament.


Frustrated Mother

Dear Frustrated Mother;

Most high school students need to be held accountable if you want something done - otherwise their lives are just “too busy”, and they will let slide anything they feel they can skip without an immediate consequence. Responsibility must be taught and monitored closely by parents and teachers. The idea that you are responsible for things you don’t want to do is not inborn - realization comes with coaching and the use of both rewards and consequences. Responsibility can be defined as the ability to be answerable or accountable for something within one’s power, control, or management.

Understand that kids love stimulation. And the fact is that most responsibilities are not stimulating—they’re boring and time consuming. Let’s face it: if work was fun, you’d have to pay your employer. So, kids seek excitement and gravitate away from boring things like, “Clean your room. Make your bed. Put your books away. Do your homework.” These are not things that stimulate people. These are things that stifle them, and as we all know, kids do not like that feeling. It takes a lot of discipline and maturity to learn how to manage those mood states and stay on task. Taking responsibilities seriously is a “learned behavior.” Here are some tips to help both your teens.


COACH AND MODEL:  Parents need to act as a coach to help teens learn to meet responsibilities. It’s very important that kids be coached and not just lectured. It’s also important that parents don’t cover for their kids to save them from natural consequences. This is called “helicopter parenting” because the parent hovers over the child - taking on the child’s responsibility themselves. A good coach doesn’t go out and shoot the basketball shots for you. During the game, he says, “Great shot. Good shot. Try again, do it this way.” The idea is to coach kids into meeting responsibilities without criticism and to continuously model for them how to meet responsibilities and be accountable for behaviors.

MONITOR AND LISTEN:  Maintain contact with your teen’s teachers throughout high school. Let them know that you want to be contacted immediately if there are problems with homework or behavior. Monitor school attendance. Talk with your teen about school problems and achievements every day. Hold them accountable for their actions in a firm but respectful way. This means showing respect for your child by really listening and reflecting what he or she says before jumping into giving consequences for the behavior you are discussing. Begin from a place of understanding and love—and truly listen to your child’s point of view. Responsibility should be associated with both rewards and consequences.

HOLD ACCOUNTABLE WITH EMPATHY: When it is time to give a consequence, make certain it fits the behavior, is a natural and logical consequence, and can be easily enforced.  Holding teens accountable for actions requires that the parent make the consequence for not meeting responsibilities less pleasant than the task, and that the act of being held accountable promotes a willingness to meet the responsibilities next time. However, be careful not to give consequences in anger and avoid overly extreme consequences - these are really punishments - and punishment doesn’t work! For example, grounding your teen for months is overly severe and not something a parent can easily monitor. Giving consequences and not following through teaches your teen a very negative life lesson.

PRAISE AND REWARD: The most powerful way of learning to make good decisions is by being allowed to make some small mistakes, experiencing the related consequences, and seeing that the adults around you love you even when you mess up. Far too many parents rob their kids of such opportunities by making sure that their kids never make mistakes, bailing their children out of the consequences of their mistakes, or creating resentment by showing anger and rejection and making the teen feel like a failure. Remember to look for times to reward and praise often.  Positive reinforcement will increase desired behaviors. Coaching a teen into taking accountability for actions will eventually promote their self-assurance. When kids fulfill responsibilities, they gain a sense of empowerment and their self-esteem grows providing them with a secondary reinforcement that will help them meet responsibilities throughout life.

When you see this growth happening it will provide you with some much-needed positive reinforcement, because parenting teens is not an easy job!

Our readers are welcome to send questions to Susan Mitchell, asking advice for any mental health or behavioral difficulty within families or interpersonal relationships. Your anonymity will be respected. Send to [email protected].

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