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Choices and Accountability

man and younger woman sitting next to each other at dinner table, enjoying a meal in a dining hall

We all make choices on a day-to-day basis that affect our well-being and our relationships for better or for worse. Some choices are relatively simple and affect us in the short-term, like whether or not to eat breakfast when we’re running late on a particular day. Other choices are more complex and affect us in the long-term, such as saving for retirement or getting married. Many daily choices affect us both in the short-term and long-term, such as choosing to exercise regularly. Whether or not we’re mindful of the choices we make, our choices have consequences and shape the way our lives and relationships play out. Taking responsibility for our actions can be difficult, particularly if we’ve made poor choices in the past. But once we are able to be accountable for our choices, we are able to make better decisions that will improve our well-being and impact our lives in positive ways.

As a parent, taking responsibility for your choices also helps you to teach your children how to take responsibility for their actions as well. Teenagers in particular need to understand that their choices have consequences in order to make healthy, informed decisions.

Establishing Family Rules and Consequences Teaches Accountability

Many families struggle as they attempt to establish family rules and consequences. It is difficult to know what rules to put into place, what consequences are appropriate, and how to follow through with those consequences. However, establishing family rules and consequences teaches your teen what your values are and helps him/her understand that there are consequences for his/her actions. Keep in mind that if you establish family rules and consequences in order to force your teen to comply with you, your teen will likely rebel, harbor resentment against you, or fail to learn important lessons about choices. Being a teenager is a time when teens are exploring their own values. Your expectations and rules are your values and they are naturally going to go against them at times. This helps them gain their own identity.

This does not mean that you should not hold your teen accountable when he/she goes against your rules. As a parent, you have a right to expect that your values are maintained in your home. When your teen uses alcohol, he/she needs a consequence so he/she understands that he/she has gone against your values. When you don’t follow through with the consequence, your teen gets the idea that you don’t really hold that value. By not giving consequences, teens also learn that they can get away with unhealthy or illegal behaviors. Teach your teen about consequences before the consequences are life altering in tragic ways.

Tips for Establishing Family Rules and Consequences:

  • Keep it simple. Identify five or six hot topics that you feel strongly about. In doing this, think of the rules that need to have a consequence each time they are broken. These topics may include appropriate use of the computer and cell phone, curfew, drugs and alcohol, and respectful family behavior. If your teen isn’t struggling with a particular rule, leave it off unless it becomes an issue later on.
  • Include your teen. It is helpful to include your teen when making family rules and consequences. He/she will have ideas about what the rules and expectations should be. Invite him/her to tell you what he/she thinks the most important rules are. Ask him/her to define the expectations about the rule. For example, curfew is the rule and the definition is that curfew is 11:30 pm on weekends. Of course, as the parent, you listen to your teen’s ideas, then make a final decision. After you have established and defined the rules and expectations, give your teen a chance to share ideas on what the consequences should be. Ask clarifying questions as he/she discusses the consequences and keep his/her feedback in mind as you make the final decision.
  • Use natural and logical consequences. In deciding what the consequences should be, consider using natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences occur when you as a parent step out of the way and let life happen. For example, a teen who receives a speeding ticket is expected to pay the fine rather than having his/her parents fight the ticket or pay the fine themselves. Logical consequences are consequences that you put in place that make sense given the situation. For example, if a teen steals from someone else in the family, a logical consequence would be that he/she needs to replace the item and apologize to the family member.
  • Determine the length of consequences. You and your teen should decide the length of consequences. This should depend on the severity of the incident. If a teen is caught viewing inappropriate material on the computer, parents can remove computer privileges for a certain amount of time. Many parents become frustrated and tend to have longer consequences than necessary. In the process, parents become more frustrated as they work hard to enforce consequences. Remember, the purpose of family rules and consequences isn’t to make your teen suffer, but to help him/her understand that there are consequences for his/her actions. Shorter consequences are sometimes more effective than longer consequences.
  • Write down your rules and consequences. This will help you to be more consistent and keep from making things up as you go along. Usually those decisions are ineffective because they are made strictly out of emotion. Following through with your predetermined consequence will make it more likely that the incident is not repeated. Writing down your rules and consequences also allows your teen to have structure and predictability.
  • Be patient. Keep in mind that following through with rules and consequences can be a very difficult task. Your teen will test the boundaries and push your buttons in order to get out of receiving a consequence. In order to follow through with giving consequences, stay calm and don’t let emotions rule the conversation. If you become emotional and start fighting or arguing you may damage the relationship or fail to enforce your rules and consequences. If it becomes too emotional, take a break and try again later. Conflict will inevitably arise as you enforce consequences, but be patient through the process. Following through with realistic predictable consequences will make the process go smoother and help your teen become more open to accepting his/her consequence.

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