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How can I make my teen more accountable?

Eran Grayson
Eran Grayson

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What parent hasn’t endured the frustration of their teenager forgetting assignments, procrastinating endlessly, and being just plain irresponsible at times? I know it’s not much consolation to know you’re in a pretty enormous club (we’ll call it Club Aaarrgh), but there are a lot of reasons for the maddening behavior you’re seeing. 

First of all, it’s developmentally appropriate to see a teenager who sometimes flakes out and doesn’t do what’s expected of them. Their brains are maturing and making new connections every day. Between hormonal surges in puberty, fluctuations in their social ecosystems, sports, play rehearsals, club meetings, tutoring and volunteer work, occasional slip-ups can and will occur. A forgotten due date for a project – a test that creeps up and surprises them…not earth-shattering consequences if it’s rare and they learn from the uncomfortable experience.

Accountability when your teen has ADHD

But what if it’s more common than you or your teen would like? If your kid has ADHD or executive function challenges, know that they are not trying to be difficult or irresponsible. In my decades of experience as an educational therapist, I’ve discovered that kids want to succeed but they often don’t know how to do it. They can hide their confusion under a cloak of apathy. Hey, you can’t fail if you don’t really care, right?

Your teen with ADHD can learn to be accountable. Of course, unlike their growth spurts, it won’t happen overnight. It will be an incremental process filled with mistakes and successes. But if you focus on the wins and acknowledge the good stuff when it’s there, you’ll not only improve your relationship but you’ll be helping your teen gain the skills they need to be independent young adults.

5 ways to help your teen become more accountable

Allow them a voice in what they’re accountable for.

Think of Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory assembly line. The work keeps coming and they can’t keep up, no matter how many shortcuts they take. Kids can feel like they’re on an assembly line of schoolwork, too. If it’s too overwhelming for your teen to be instantly accountable for all homework in all classes plus chores, discuss with them what’s reasonable to expect. Maybe at first, it’s homework in 3 classes and taking out the trash on Tuesday. That’s OK. They need to exert their free will to decide what they’ll start out being accountable for, or else it’s just human nature to feel resistant to being told what to do.

Make sure they have the skills/ability to do what’s expected.

If something big is on your teen’s to-do list, like “write essay for history,” do they know how to break the task down into small, achievable chunks? If they don’t, it’s going to feel overwhelming – and that sabotages accountability. If they have a high-stakes exam to study for, do they actually know how to actively study? (Pro tip: if your teen’s strategy for studying is “review my notes,” that’s a red flag that they don’t have a plan to truly know the material.)

Help them know exactly what’s expected and when.

What do you think you’d do if something like “clean out closet” was on your to-do list? If you’re like me, you’d probably wait until items tumble out and threaten to overrun the house before you actually tackle it. The same is true for your kid. “Empty dishwasher” is not descriptive enough to make someone accountable. Add some heft to that request with details, selected with your kid (see #1), such as “empty dishwasher on Saturday and Sunday mornings by 10:00am with all items put in their proper spots.” See how there’s no wiggle room there? That’s the sweet smell of accountability…and Cascade.

Provide a reason for it.

Knowing the why behind a task provides a kid meaning and context to see how it fits into the bigger picture around them. Using the example in #3, be explicit about how emptying the dishwasher on the weekend is important to the family. Don’t just assume kids “should know” things like this. “When the dishwasher is emptied by 10:00, I can get lunch ready on time and have all the utensils and plates I need, when I need them. I’ll feel less stressed and be more fun to be around.” Heck, I wish I had been given guidance like this as a kid and I might not have acted in ways that looked selfish (but really were just clueless).

Encourage them to reflect on what it feels like to succeed.

It’s one thing to scratch off an item on your to-do list. It’s quite another to take a moment and talk about that accomplishment. You might ask your teen what it was like for them to finish that thing that they decided to be accountable for. They may say “relieved” or just plain “good.” Maybe follow up with what it felt like before they completed the task (“dread” or “uggh”) and ask them what advice they’d give their future self the next time they need to get something like that done. A debrief like this helps their growing brains make positive connections between setting a goal and accomplishing it. That sets them up for even bigger future goals.

Following these 5 tips may not make your teen perfectly accountable every time, but it certainly makes strides toward helping them make better choices with increasing independence. (And hopefully will get you drummed out of Club Aaarrgh for good!)

Every parent faces the challenge of a teenager's forgetfulness, procrastination, and occasional irresponsibility, all part of their natural development. If your teen has ADHD, supporting them with accountability, skills, clear expectations, reasons for tasks, and reflection fosters independence and success.

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