Q: I have a 12-year-old son who is totally not responsible at all and I don’t know how to get him to do anything around the house. Teaching making good decisions is a daily challenge. I end up angry and probably yell at him too much, but I’m tired and don’t know what else to do. Can you help explain how to encourage responsibility and teaching decision-making, please?

A: As frustrating as it can be, unfortunately, responsibility doesn’t simply appear by age 12, or even at 16 or 20. This develops over a period of time. Just as with learning any new task, responsibility can evolve easily for some children without any help, and for others it can be a much more challenging learning curve. It might mean teaching the skills required to be responsible. You raised one of the skills for assuming responsibility — decision-making — so let’s address that example. Much of a person’s ability to act responsibly depends on his or her ability to make decisions. This is a process, beginning with the toddler making simple choices, ultimately progressing to problem-solving as the child gets older. 

Offer choices, as decision-making ability starts with simple either/or choices. For example, with preschoolers, you can offer: “Do you want to hold my hand while we walk to the car or be carried to the car?” If the child starts running across the parking lot, the parent can pick up the child, saying, “I see you decided to be carried.” The child then becomes more familiar with simple choices, making it easier to add other alternatives. As the child considers more ideas, he or she will be more likely to make appropriate choices. 

Given your son is 12, perhaps you’ve been making all his decisions for him. If you have unintentionally enabled his lack of responsibility, by doing everything for him simply because it’s easier than engaging in battles, it will now be more difficult to get him to make good decisions. Try stating exactly what you see: “I’m frustrated that I’m not getting any help around the house. I bet you’re feeling pretty frustrated too with my yelling at you so much. It’s my job to help you learn to make good decisions and how to be responsible, but maybe I haven’t taught that very well. I’d like to start over. What do you think are some ways we could make this work better for us both?” Be his partner, as by supporting him, you will achieve connection. That’s when you can begin problem-solving, helping him consider the options in deciding what’s a responsible approach. You don’t have to agree with his ideas, yet simply hear and validate his point of view. As your relationship improves with connection, your son will trust you more, which will also encourage more responsible behavior. Yelling and punishment will only undermine that. Connection is where he will learn, as that’s the root of responsible behavior.

Q: My family seems to always be having some conflict, whether it’s about eating healthy, not talking bad about the neighbors, my kids hitting each other, arguing at the dinner table about anything and everything. I’d like some help in how to deal with conflict in our family better. Do you have some suggestions?

A: A very common problem! You can start with simple statements with your children, especially when you’re all around the dinner table, such as, “Here’s how I see the problem. How do you see it? What are we going to do about it?” Children have very good ideas and are much more invested in making them work when we involve them in solving the problem, rather than making them the problem. Your goal must be for win-win solutions in which you and your family get much closer to what each of you really wants.

Try setting up a way to deal with conflicts that affect everyone. Family meetings are helpful in providing a democratic forum in which you discuss problems and come up with mutually agreeable solutions. I’ve heard of a few families that have tried a “conflict jar,” for problems to be written down and put in the jar for discussion at a family meeting. 

Teach your children that your family values about conflict are something like, “We don’t hit when we’re angry in this family. We talk things out instead of fighting.” Be very clear that violence is unacceptable both at home and outside the home. Start making civility, kindness and generosity your family values. These are a sign of respect for each other, which can then ease tensions in disagreements, both at home and in the community. 

Keep in mind that not every conflict requires your intervention. Children learn how to resolve their own conflicts by becoming independent problem solvers. When parents oversee their battles, choosing sides and telling them what to say and do, they won’t develop necessary skills for working out their differences. Let them know you’re available to help, and if later they want to talk it through once they’ve resolved their conflict, see how they feel about the resolution. You can help them learn from their struggles. Most important, as you address conflicts both in and out of the home, your family can master how to be strong and assertive without being aggressive and hurtful. When your goal is to win in any conflict, that requires rendering the other person powerless, creating disconnection, bitterness and resentment in your family. The most important part of conflict mediation is listening and understanding each person’s perspective, without judgment or criticism, aiming to “meet in the middle.” 

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