Dear Sarah: Helping Our Teens Take Responsibility

Dear Sara,

I am so tired of reminding my daughter to bring her homework to school and her violin to lessons.  She is 15! Why doesn’t she do it herself?


Fed Up in Florence

Dear Fed Up,

A friend told me this story about her 14 year old daughter:

I was driving Zoe to dance class when she realized that she forgot her dance shoes. Zoe was so afraid that her teacher would yell at her, that tears were streaming down her face. Then she got angry at me for being unwilling to make myself late to work by backtracking for the shoes.

That afternoon when I asked her how class had gone she said, “It was really hard. You know I seriously thought about hanging out in the bathroom and skipping class all together!”

I replied, “I can understand why you would want to stay in the bathroom, but I really respect the decision that you made by going to class. All your life there will be uncomfortable situations that you will need to face, and you gave yourself some practice today. After all, you can’t hide in a bathroom every time life gets difficult!”

I like so many of the things that my friend did in this situation:

  1. She made Zoe responsible for her own belongings, rather than rescuing or fixing. Our teenagers learn to be responsible not through lecturing or punishment, but by being required to face the unpleasant consequences of their own choices and mistakes.

  2. She validated Zoe’s feelings and did not freak out when hearing the idea of hiding in the bathroom. This approach increases the likelihood that her daughter will continue to share her decision making processes with her mom.

  3. I suggest also asking, “What made you decide to go to class rather than hide?” and “How did you deal with your fear?” This could lead to a deeper reflection on Zoe’s part, about her own values, thoughts and coping skills.

  4. My friend modeled her values that it is important to face up to responsibilities and mistakes, even when it is uncomfortable. Teenagers will drift a bit and decide their own values over time, but as parents, we help to anchor them by stating what ours are.

I hope this story inspires and informs you as much as it did me! Thanks for your question. Please send any success stories that you would like to share as well!




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Sarah read her first parenting book when she was 13 years old. She loved babysitting in high school. In her twenties, she taught at an after-school program so that she could practice on other peoples’ kids before having her own. She was often heard saying, “I am so lucky! I get paid to play kickball and teach kids how to resolve their conflicts!” By age 25, she was the Director of that same program, developing workshops for her staff on how to work more effectively and respectfully with children.

Sarah is currently a parenting consultant/psychotherapist in private practice in Northampton, MA. She offers parenting consultations, support groups, couples counseling and individual therapy, and she has brought her workshops to parents and educators all over New England and beyond. As Sarah rounds the corner toward 50, she still feels lucky every day to be doing the work that she loves.

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