Fostering Responsibility in Teenagers

Responsibility. We all may have different reactions to that word. In terms of character qualities, responsibility is one of the most important things we can help our children develop. However, it seems that we receive very conflicting messages concerning responsibility. Countless times throughout the day we are told to be responsible for our actions. At the same time, however, another message is clearly being sent. Consider the following examples:

  • The Menendez brothers killed their parents. But it was really the parents’ fault.
  • An FBI agent, fired for stealing money he then lost on bets, won his job back when a judge ruled him a victim of compulsive gambling.
  • In 1992, a jury said that McDonalds had to pay a woman $3,000,000 because she spilled hot coffee in her lap.

These examples provide a clear message: I’m a victim and not to blame for my behavior. An even more disturbing example of this type of thinking happened on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado. Two teenagers, armed with guns and bombs, massacred twelve students and a teacher. Another 25 were injured. As I prepared a lecture on juvenile delinquency for my Adolescent Psychology class at Evangel University, I read a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll that asked 659 adults: “Which of the following have a ‘great deal’ of blame for the shootings in Colorado?” I was dumbfounded by who these adults felt should accept blame for the shootings:

  • Availability of guns 60%
  • Parents            51%
  • TV, movies, music      49%
  • Social pressures on youth        43%
  • Internet           34%
  • Media coverage of similar incidents   34%
  • Schools            11%

To my shock, missing from this list of blame are the killers themselves, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Responsibility is eroded the moment we remove an individual from being accountable for his actions and place blame onto someone or something else. As Dr. Gary Oliver (1997) states in his book Promoting Change through Brief Therapy, “One of my biggest frustrations is making someone else responsible for our own problems… It’s one thing to be the victim of unfortunate and painful circumstances; it’s another thing to go through life blaming all of your problems on those events. It’s one thing to admit that you made a mistake; it’s another thing to have the courage to accept responsibility for it” (p. 9).

Certainly the availability of guns, Eric and Dylan’s parents, the media, social pressures and schools contributed to the overall problem. But these things did not detonate the bombs and pull the triggers—the boys did. Responsibility starts not with attaching blame to outside factors; but instead, with accepting what part we played in causing the mistake and being willing to correct the mistake.

Five Ways to Foster Responsibility in Teenagers

1. Model responsibility.

Fostering responsibility in our teenagers begins with our actions. As adults, our behaviors speak louder than our words. If we are not being accountable to correct our mistakes or blaming others for our problems then our teens will not learn to be responsible. If we spill coffee in our laps, perhaps it isn’t McDonalds’ fault, but our own mistake by placing a boiling cup of coffee between our legs.

2. Provide opportunities for accountability.

The only way to develop responsibility is by having opportunities to learn from. Teenagers must have the opportunity to make mistakes so they can be accountable to correct them. You will be giving your son or daughter a great gift by allowing them appropriate freedom to make mistakes.

3. Allow our kids to make mistakes without bailing them out of being accountable.

As your son or daughter makes a mistake, it’s vital to hold them accountable to right the wrong. Many teens are rescued from responsibility by adults who bail them out of trouble. Instead, the message we need to provide is “It’s okay to make a mistake, just make it right.”

4. Hold our teenagers accountable to correct the mistake.

This involves teaching problem solving skills for correcting the mistake. For example, we must teach our teens to ask what a person needs in order to correct the problem. Once they understand how to make it right then they can be accountable to follow through with the specific need voiced by the offended party.

5. Help them recognize the mistake as an opportunity to grow.

The final way to foster responsibility is to help our teens realize that buried within each mistake is a valuable treasure. God promises to turn our pain into something wonderful by helping our character grow. In Romans 5:3-5 it says, “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint.”

The “proven character” of our teenagers can continue growing as they become responsible individuals. As our sons and daughters make mistakes, we can help by instead of blaming outside factors, we encourage them to accept what part they played in causing the mistake and being willing to make it right.


Oliver, G. J., Hasz, M., & Richburg, M. (1997). Promoting change through brief therapy in Christian counseling. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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