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Teaching Your Teenager Responsibility Doesn’t Have to Be Torture

Living with teenagers can sometimes make you feel like you’re parenting a real-life Regina George regardless of who you are (yes, even you, “cool mom”). One moment, you might be laughing with your teens, and the next, you might find yourself in the middle of a screaming match. As your world starts to spin, you might even wonder, “What on earth happened to set this off?” While that answer varies, our money is on this: You asked a question or made a statement that indicated you wanted your children to do something they don’t like. It might have gone something like this:

Teen: Jared made the whole class laugh today when he did a funny impression during history.

You: Wow, I bet that was funny! Speaking of class, have you finished your project that’s due on Friday?

Teen: You are literally the Antichrist. This is why I can’t talk to you about anything.

Whoa, right? How are we supposed to teach kids how to be responsible and follow through on their work (let alone have any kind of positive relationship with them) if we can’t even have a simple discussion about homework without them going full-on mean-girl mode?

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We spoke with five professionals — from therapists to parenting coaches — who reassured us that coexisting with teens while also passing along valuable life lessons doesn’t have to be painful. Below, we’ve gathered their tips on how to make your home less of a battlefield and more of a communal space.

Put yourself in their position

“So much of what we do with our kids, whether it’s intentional or not, comes off as a battle for control and power,” parent-teen relationship coach Fern Weis says. Think back to when you were a teen. There were probably moments when you too felt the world was out to get you no matter how irrational those thoughts may seem in retrospect. To help teens feel more comfortable, Weis suggests we shift our approach when pushing for them to take on more responsibility with things like housework and homework.

“One of the things I suggest parents do is, rather than saying, ‘You do this, and you do that,’ is to create some buy-in to this process,” she says. “Buy-in can come from having a brainstorming session with your kids where you sit them down and say, ‘I can’t do this alone. It works better when we all participate. So, let’s make a list of all of the things that have to get done around here.’ You encourage participation in creating this list, and you don’t edit at all. It doesn’t matter if it’s ridiculous or wonderful or unreasonable or unrealistic, you write every single thing down because if you don’t, your kids are going to come back and say, ‘If you don’t take my suggestions, then don’t ask me next time.'”

By involving teens in this process, you’re giving them agency, which in turn will make them feel more invested in day-to-day family activities.

Rhonda Moskowitz, a parenting coach who runs Practical Solutions Parent Coaching, believes that shifting the way you talk to your children can ultimately reshape your overall outlook. “When the parent shifts, the child shifts,” she says. “When what you notice is what’s wrong, you get more of it. But if you start noticing what you appreciate or what’s going well, even if it’s just a teeny little bit, you start seeing more of it. What you focus on grows.”

Additionally, making your teen feel like a valuable, not burdensome, part of the family can help improve their overall mental health while also making you more aware of the struggles they may be facing. “Teen mental health is in decline, with anxiety disorders and depression both on the rise,” Dr. Melissa Deuter, psychiatrist and author of Stuck in the Sick Role: How Illness Becomes an Identity, explains. “But surprisingly, some of the most affected kids want to help their families out. In truth, there’s a complex relationship between having the drive to accomplish something and feeling good. On the one hand, when a teen feels love, she may not be motivated to cooperate. On the other hand, a teen who knows she’s not taking the initiative feels ashamed, and her self-esteem suffers.”

If your teen still seems distant or uninterested in being part of the family, it could be an indication that there’s something more substantial going on — mentally or emotionally — that might be worth monitoring or bringing up with a professional.

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Learn to accept failure

Here’s something none of us like to hear, but it’s all too true: Change takes time. As much as we’d all love to say something once and see our children follow through without us having to ask, you have to understand — and be OK with — the reality that this can take years to happen.

Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t only apply to household tasks such as cleaning the dishes or doing laundry. You also have to consider that your children may blow off their homework, stop practicing their instruments or grow lazy during soccer practice. For many, the natural instinct is to automatically do whatever we can to make sure our kids succeed.

“Countless times, I have witnessed parents struggling to complete students’ essays and major projects the night before the assignments are due,” certified schoolteacher and private tutor Gaye Weintraub says. “They rush to school to bring forgotten gym clothes, homework and musical instruments, and they handle all aspects of the teen’s life, so the teen never experiences the consequences of not being prepared. While some parents believe helping in this way prevents their teen from getting too stressed, the reality is the parent cannot accompany the child to college or their future job.”

Weis concurs. When she was a schoolteacher, she says, concerned parents would tell her that if they’d known about a test or a project, they would have made sure their children had studied or worked harder. But instead of kicking yourself for not being on top of your kids’ assignments, this is the “perfect opportunity for you to let your child feel the consequences” of their actions, explains Weis. They have to learn that all actions, including inactions, come with a price.

“You have to understand that your child is going to make mistakes, and you have to live with it and not try to ‘save’ them… It can take years for your children to figure out that they have to do something,” Moskowitz says. “But we have to let them face the results of their own choices because if we don’t, we rob them of an opportunity to learn… It’s really hard to watch your child fail, to set themselves up to fall apart… but that’s their best teacher.”

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