How to Define Structure & Responsibilities for Teens

This post was originally published April 15, 2015. I have updated it extensively and republished it on March 29, 2016.

The great question of parenting adolescents is:

How much structure should parents provide and how much is the teen ready to manage on their own?

This is an evolving issue with increasing self-management going to the youth in preparation for young adulthood. When there is too much parental structure for a youth’s needs or too little, it is an invitation for The Parent-Teen Control Battle to enter the relationship.

Here is an example of a family where The Parent-Teen Control Battle pointed to too little parental structure.

I met with this lovely family — a 16-year-old girl, Elena — and her parents. She was beyond bright and with little effort had achieved straight A’s all the way through to her junior year in high school.

Now she was at a point where she actually had to study to get good grades, but that was not her habit. She somehow wasn’t attached to the idea of needing to work hard to get good grades.

Elena’s parents were struggling with her on a daily basis. Elena would do almost anything but her homework…

  • text with her school connections
  • play online video games
  • read recreationally

…and so forth.

Her parents were understandably confused and exhausted.

We talked about the fact that she needed to do her work — the reality that she wasn’t — and pondered the question of how this could be… particularly since she was such a bright and generally responsible individual.

We agreed that for whatever reason, Elena simply wasn’t ready to be fully responsible.

We also talked about neurodevelopment in the adolescent and how executive function — the higher level of the brain — was growing during adolescence. This function wouldn’t be fully developed until her early twenties and perhaps, while she seemed bright and capable, she still needed her parents’ executive function to compensate for hers.

I asked Elena what percentage of her executive function she needed help with. In other words, how much could she successfully manage on her own, and how much help did she need from her parents?

How much responsibility can teenagers successfully manage on their own, and how much help do they need from their parents?Click To Tweet

These are the real question here:

  1. How much parenting does Elena need from her parents?
  2. How capable is she to self-parent or manage her responsibilities independently?
  3. Do her parents need to make the rules and provide the structure, or does she self-manage and provide her own structure, to manage her responsibilities?

And these are the great ongoing and evolving question of teen-parent relationships.

Explore these great ongoing and evolving question of teen-parent relationships with Neil D. Brown.Click To Tweet

Elena thought a bit, and finally said she thought she was ready for about 60% — and that she needed her parents to provide 40%.

I thought this was an amazingly honest self-assessment.

Elena’s parents were quite stunned by her admission, and wisely, didn’t show it.

Instead, they took this as an invitation to provide a structure that Elena, like it or not, would be accountable to. A structure with the built-in value of work first and play second. Until the work was done, there would be no privileges.

When the parents made their expectations clear, the arguing and resisting went way down. There were instances where Elena lost her privileges and they returned when Elena took responsibility and recommitted to the structure her parents provided.

Not surprisingly, Elena’s grades went way up, and Elena — happy with her success — took on increasing amounts of responsibility for herself.

Parents, let’s take a lesson from Elena’s family…

If your son or daughter doesn’t demonstrate the ability to manage critical responsibilities, maybe they’re not defying you.

Maybe they’re just not ready.

What do you think?

I encourage you to share your own stories in the comments below on defining structure and responsibilities for your teen(s) — both successes and challenges!

Leave a Comment

Is It A Control Battle?