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Assisting Youth Development of Responsibility

November 1, 2006
by Tiffany Howard, MS, LCADC
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Working with addicted adolescents can be challenging for professionals and parents alike. Adolescents are often very good at getting all parties involved in ensuring their success, and it can become more important for the adult than the adolescent to do the right thing. Dick Schaefer, author ofChoices and Consequences: What to Do When a Teenager Uses Alcohol/Drugs, titles his first chapter “‘You Sat on the Burner, Baby…You Sit on the Blisters' and Other Basic Principles of Intervention” and reminds the reader that the first principle of intervention is that we are responsible
to people, but not
for them.

Tiffany Howard, MS, LCADC

Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD, MPH, author of Stop Negotiating With Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody, or Depressed Adolescent, offers ways for parents to draw healthier boundaries for themselves to encourage youths to do the right thing.2 She outlines the following basic principles:

  • Consequences of adolescents' decisions must always matter more to them than to their parents, or the adult will feel responsible for making youths change.

  • It is important to differentiate between the youth who can't and the one who won't.

  • It is up to the adult to provide opportunities for responsible choices, but it is youths' job to make sure they follow through.

  • Youths who avoid responsibility will attempt to create emotional discussions in which the adult becomes more frustrated than the youth, effectively shifting focus from the noncompliance to the adult's reaction.

Methods used by adolescents with a parent are the same used in the relationship with a professional. Advice given to parents in setting limits is practical for the professional as well. Edgette acknowledges that use of new strategies may be difficult, but suggests the following:

  • The “This is going to have to be more embarrassing for you than for me” strategy. Adolescents who manipulate situations toward their desired outcome may be influenced toward more appropriate behaviors when adults no longer allow themselves to be intimidated by the potential for their own or the youths' embarrassment.

  • “Don't take the fall for the teenager's poor choices.” Don't allow the adolescent to choose the ways in which you will be inconvenienced (i.e., the parent having to take the youth to school frequently due to difficulty getting out of bed on time to catch the bus; the professional constantly rescheduling appointments due to a client's “forgetfulness”).

  • “Get out of the middle.” Stop bailing them out! Allow adolescents to experience the natural consequences of behaviors.

  • Abandon efforts to stay “rational” in favor of getting “real.” Adolescents often interpret adult efforts at having a rational discussion as an attempt to control their emotions by pointing out errors in their thinking. Candid dialogue from the adult regarding the difficulty in reaching the adolescent can be more effective. For example: “This discussion is going badly. It's unfortunate because I don't want to argue but I don't see this changing right now. I don't think we are hearing each other. Maybe we'll try again tomorrow.”

Professionals must recognize that healthy boundaries may create barriers in the development of the therapeutic alliance at the onset of treatment. Youths who have come to expect certain outcomes may choose to leave treatment or request a new counselor, probation officer, etc., when their efforts do not generate the anticipated response.

Identifying unhealthy patterns

As they navigate the tasks of adolescence that form their identity (determining vocation, establishing values, exploring sexuality, and establishing authority), youths need help in saving face. Recognizing their “emotional logic” helps to identify areas in which youths may be “stuck” in unhealthy patterns through their substance use/abuse:

  • “I can't want it (school, being alcohol-free, a job) if I know that you want it, too.”

  • “As long as I think of an idea as yours, it will never feel like mine. I may like it, but I can't use it.”

  • “I will stop acting up as soon as you stop watching and waiting for me to change my behavior.”

  • “Sometimes it feels good to see you as confused and out of control as I feel.”

  • “It's more important for me to feel ‘right' than to do the smart thing.”

Protecting self-esteem

Poor self-esteem is a natural byproduct of the adolescent transition to adulthood. Parents and professionals must remember that youths need to feel respected, to think and act for themselves, and to believe that they have control over their lives. Validation of the effectiveness of substance use in meeting self-esteem needs (to be “somebody,” to escape the present, to “belong,” etc.) helps youths to feel understood and appreciated for what they experience. Once this is felt, adolescents are often more willing to soften their beliefs/positions, even if they conflict with adult perspectives.