Teens need accountability. What emotions come to the surface when I say that? When you think about holding a teen accountable, what comes to mind?
The truth is, we might have different feelings and thoughts about this based on our own experiences as a teen, as a parent, as a caring adult. Regardless of the differences, the common thread we all share is that the teens in our life need us to walk with them as they learn to accept accountability and grow skills to hold themselves accountable.
In this post, we are going to look at what accountability is, what is not, why it can be hard for teens to accept, and 2 Bible verses that will guide us as we engage with teens.
What does accountability look like?
When we talk about accountability and teens, it is important for us to have a similar working definition and vision of what it can look like. First, accountability can be simply defined as “taking responsibility for what one says or does.” It means acknowledging these things and accepting they can have an impact on those around them.
If that is our working definition, then what do we need to do to help create and environment of accountability?
Set clear expectations, boundaries and consequences with your teen.
Teens need a working roadmap to know what is expected of them. They need to know where they are heading and what is along the way. As a caring adult, part of accountability is helping them identify these things and communicating your expectations with them. Further, engaging teens in a conversation that includes determining consequences is important. When we can have teens be a part of the process it helps them to take more responsibility for their actions.
In my home, we call this concept of taking more responsibility, driving the bus. We began using this analogy with our oldest when he was looking at colleges. He was content to wait or have mom and dad do the research and legwork. We stepped back and gave him the green light to move forward. We now use that analogy in broader ways to let our teens know that they are responsible for certain things like homework, balancing their schedules, work, etc. That said, we let them know we are happy to ride along with them, give them directions and help guide them. Ultimately however, they need to be driving the bus. This allows us to more fully step into the role of encouraging versus fully leading.
Model what holding oneself accountable looks like.
I am a firm believer that teens learn best by seeing things in action. They need to see us hold ourselves accountable and be held accountable by others. Why does this matter? First, it can help them visualize accountability in a positive way. Second, it shows that everyone is held accountable. Third, it gives them the opportunity to learn how to hold themselves accountable as well.
When we model the behaviors and skills we want our teens to develop, it clarifies our expectations as well. It also creates an opportunity to engage youth in a conversation about accountability.
As a parent, we can model accountability by working as a family unit to hold each other accountable. Perhaps your family has a no swearing rule and you call each other out for such behavior. Maybe your family has rules about phone usage after dinner and you are able to remind each other of the expectations. These examples of accountability may seem small, but they are a great way to begin building the skill of accepting being held responsible for one’s actions and the skill of holding oneself accountable.
Check in with your teen on what they are doing and what they have said or done.
This might seem obvious, but as a parent, we need to be checking in with our teens on what they are doing, what they have said, what they have done. Our teens need to know we see them and we care about them. They need to also know that we are prepared to help redirect them if they are not doing things that are healthy for them.
Now, these check in moments do not have to be a formal checklist. A formal check in might just shut your teen down. Having a relationship that is authentic, ongoing and more than just checking in from time to time will help validate you when you do have to address accountability issues. Quite simply, teens need to you keep showing up for them, but they need you to also show up for fun, to listen, to laugh. They need to know that you see them as a whole person, not just someone to hold accountable.
Give your teen space to make mistakes and fail so that they can learn and grow.
Giving teens space to make mistakes and fail is hard. In fact, it is often an area that we as parents can struggle in. We know the benefit of learning and growing. We understand the importance of picking oneself up from a failure and moving forward. But, watching our teens struggle, fail, hurt can be so hard to watch that we jump in to rescue.
I have a t-shirt that says Mama Bear on it. I believe it is a pretty accurate description of me and my emotions when I see one of my children struggling. But, here is what I have learned over the years, my children needed to have struggles, make mistakes, choose poorly in order to develop their sense of self, their values, and their own belief systems separate from mom’s and dad’s. They needed to experience hard in order to be molded into who God wants them to be.
Yes, it is hard to watch. And, yes there may be situations that are safety related where we have to intercede. But, there are also times when they need to choose for themselves, even if they don’t choose wisely. For example, a teen that stays up late every night and ends up sick from lack of sleep, has a natural consequence. Or a teen that blows through their money and then doesn’t have enough to go out with friends, there is a natural consequence for them. As a parent, we have to let them fail at times.
Praise your teen when they are doing good and taking responsibility.
As a parent, I believe we need to be good at catching our teens doing good. I also believe that praise needs to be authentic and deserving. Be intentional in praising your teen when you see them make good decisions, when you see them take responsibility. And, if a teen accepts responsibility and owns their mistakes, acknowledge this. When we can do this, we help them to grow confidence and their identity.
What Accountability Is Not
When we talk about accountability, it is important to also look at what accountability is not.
Accountability is not discipline or punishment. Holding our teen accountable does not mean we are focused on disciplining our child. Rather, holding our teen accountable means we are helping them to own their behaviors and words. If we only equate accountability with punishment, our teens will as well. Instead, we need to talk with our teen about how certain actions do have consequences, but accountability is about growing responsibility for oneself.
Accountability is not judgment. We don’t sit waiting to judge our teens or catch our teens doing wrong. Sometimes they might feel like that, but honestly we need to separate accountability from judgment. We need to acknowledge to our teen that we all make mistakes and that your goal is to help them grow, not judge them.
Accountability is also not a one time thing. This means that it is not just something you do one time and then assume your teen has everything under control. And, our teens need to understand that it is an ongoing part of your relationship with them. The fact that it is ongoing makes it all the more important that judgment is not a part of it.
Accountability is not excusing behaviors or choices. This means that as a parent, even if it is hard for you, you may have to hold your teen accountable. You might have to allow them to stumble and to face natural consequences. They need to know that just because we love them and are their parents, it doesn’t mean that we will excuse poor choices.
Why This Is Hard For Teens
When we look at accountability, we need to acknowledge why it might be difficult for teens. If we can be aware of what makes things difficult, it will allow us to have more open and honest conversations with the teens in our life.
Teens want approval and acceptance.
Sure, it may not always see like it, but teens crave acceptance. And, if they feel that you don’t accept them, they will find someone who will. Accountability means we accept them for who they are in the moment and acknowledge that they are still in development. It means that we know they are learning, they are growing and they are not going to get everything right. Taking time to tell our teens this is important.
Teens don’t want to be hurt or dismissed.
Many teens fear being hurt or dismissed. They don’t want an adult to give up on them. Teens don’t want to mess up in a way that makes them become unlovable. They don’t want their parent to quit on them. I know this is true from many conversations with teens themselves and from watching my oldest son fear this when he was struggling.
Teens can feel embarrassed when they struggle.
Teens don’t want to be embarrassed or seen as a failure. They are not always kind to each other, and they are also not always kind to themselves. Teens can be incredibly hard on themselves if they are not able to do something or get something right. When they feel embarrassed, they begin to withdraw and can try to avoid accountability. It is important for us to be mindful of this when we engage with them.
For teens, asking for help can make them feel dumb.
Have you ever watched a teen deliberately avoid getting help or asking questions? Have you ever asked them why they don’t want help? I know from daily interactions with teens, they don’t want to be seen as dumb if they ask for help. While I think it is a sign of maturity and courage to ask for assistance, not all teens believe that to be true. And, I know that how I approach them when offering help matters as well.
Teens can feel out of control.
So much is happening in a teen’s daily life. They face changes all the time–physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. Teens are navigating all of these things and that can play into them feeling out of control. And, when we are holding a teen accountable, that can feel like things are even more out of control. As a parent, it is important to understand this and work with your teen to help them see accountability as a way to feel more in control.
Bible Verses To Help Guide Our Accountability Approach
When we are working to help teens take responsibility for their words and actions, it is helpful to be intentional in how we approach them. And, there is no better place to look for wisdom than the Bible itself.
The first verse from Proverbs is a great thing to discuss with teens. It can help them to understand why we engage in holding someone accountable…we want them to be the best version of themselves. And, as we help to hold someone accountable, it creates the opportunity for us to do our own self-reflection and see where we need to be held accountable.
This verse from Galatians reminds me that my approach when holding someone accountable needs to be gentle. It can be easy to become frustrated or short with someone when they don’t want to be held accountable. But, the truth is that they need me to approach them in a loving way, with a loving Spirit like Jesus.
As you go continue engaging and holding teens accountable, I hope you remember these verses. I pray that you invite God into your relationship as well.