Parenting Adolescents and the Choice-Consequence Connection

How personal decisions can be empowering and instructive

Posted Sep 17, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Adolescent growth is a gathering of self-management capacity. As parents gradually let go supervision and support, the young person hopefully learns from increased freedom of experience to become less needy of them and to function more self-reliantly.


But what is the core “experience” that parents are working with here? I believe it is the choice/consequence connection. What they must help the freedom hungry adolescent keep in mind is that every “free” choice she or her makes comes with baggage in the form of consequences, and thus is never entirely “free” at all. 

This connection has two empowering values: for responsibility and for instruction.

When a young person owns their share in the outcome of a personal choice, they accept some responsibility: “At least part of what happened tonight at the party is a result of choices I made.” The connection can create accountability.

When a young person’s choice is informed by the consequence that follows, then that outcome can have instructional value: “What happened tonight has taught me to never repeat what I did.” The connection can provide education.

When an adolescent makes an important choice with impactful consequences, whether good or ill or both, parents can help the young person assume a share of accountability and profit from the experience educationally. “You have your share in the break-up, but it is not all your fault; and maybe you can learn from what happened something worth remembering in your next romantic relationship.” 


Sometimes, the young person does not feel inclined or able to link choice to consequence. Preoccupied as they are with choices only, they have a hard time extracting responsibility and instruction from decisions they make. Common examples include:

·      An emotionally driven young person: “My feelings lead the way.”

·      A highly impulsive young person: “I can’t resist temptation.”

·      An easily influenced young person: “I let my friends decide.”

·      A substance abusing young person: “Using does my choosing.”

·      A willfully entitled young person: “I can do whatever I like.” 

This can be very frustrating for parents: “What is it going to take for you to learn from your mistakes and not keep repeating them?” “How can you not see what you are doing to yourself?”

The most common answer is denial.

·      “It’s not so bad.”

·      “It’s no big deal.”

·      “It’s not my fault.”

·      “I’ll be more careful next time.”

·      “I don’t remember it happening before.”

Sometimes it can take repeat encounters with unhappy consequences to finally convince a young person to acknowledge the linkage going on and consider making different choices with better outcomes. When a teenager gets stuck in a stubborn cycle of self-defeat, sometimes counseling can help, the frustrated young person finally admitting: “I just keep doing again what I know isn’t good for me, but it's hard to stop!”


Of course, parents can be complicit in keeping the young person from learning from the choice/consequence connection, usually wanting to do so to spare their teenager (and themselves) from suffering. “We can’t bear to see him hurting himself!” By protecting from consequences however, they can prevent responsibility from growing and from instruction occurring.  For example,  they can rationalize, excuse, give multiple second chances, accept more promises, make exceptions, or otherwise rescue the adolescent from unhappy consequences, doing these all things in the name of “helping,” which can actually hurt by enabling harmful choices to continue. 

The risk is that by keeping the young person from vital benefits the choice/consequence connection has to teach – accountability and education– that she or he will continue and possibly worsen immature decisions.   


All this said; it’s complicated. We live in an age of so much parenting advice, among which is “just hold the teenager accountable, and let them learn from mistakes.” This is not bad counsel for those teenagers who can accept the choice/consequence connection and allow outcomes to inform and reform their choices when harmful consequences have occurred. However, at certain times, not all young people can do so. Instead they may learn that living with injurious consequences is okay. 

Consider the example of what I call “the early adolescent achievement drop.”

It’s not uncommon for a more resistant early adolescent who was conscientious about completing school work in elementary school to change operating priorities in middle school. The old importance of doing the work to do well is now supplanted by another: getting out of class work and homework and getting by and having a good time online and with peers. Part of the early adolescent awakening can be that “freedom is for fun,” as I was once told on youthful authority.

Consulting a well-intentioned teacher about this change in motivation, concerned parents may be advised: “Just let him not do classwork and not turn in homework and start getting failing grades and that will straighten him up.” However, the experience doesn’t correct as anticipated. To this short-sighted young person: “Other things matter more in life than grades. Just getting by is good enough!”

When the existing choice/consequence connection produces a negative outcome that does not inspire reform but begets acceptance, then parents need to intercede with consequences of their own. I’m not talking about rewards or punishments here.  I’m talking about providing a full court press of supervision, the parents saying and meaning something like this. 

“We expect you to keep doing your classwork and homework even at a time when there are more pleasurable things you want to do. Therefore, until you can do this on your own, we will give you our support at school and at home. For example, if you can’t remember to bring assignments home, one of us will meet you at the end of school and together we will walk the halls and meet with each of your teachers to make sure all homework is brought home. At home we will sit with you as long as it takes until all the work gets adequately completed. If you can’t remember to turn it in, one of us will accompany you to school and walk the halls together to help you turn the homework in to each teacher. And if for some reason you cannot complete classwork, one of us will get permission from the teacher to sit with you and help you concentrate and get it done.” 

Outraged at this proposal, the young person may object: “That would be embarrassing! You can't do this to me!” To which the parents can simply reply: “We wouldn't be doing this to you, we would be doing it for you. Part of our job is to help you keep performing up to operating capacity at school. We would not do this to embarrass you, only to help you take care of business for your sake now and later. If you would like to do without our support, just take charge of doing the work yourself.”    

Sometimes parental consequences of adolescent choices, like increased supervision, can be persuasive.


Parents can also advise the teenager to use the choice/consequence connection to help manage risk taking, to routinely take predictive responsibility when considering some action they have not tried before. At these tempting or scary times, before charging off impulsively into a new adventure, particularly when in company of enthusiastic peers, they can take a moment to think and ask a very serviceable question: “If I made this choice, what consequences are likely to occur?” Then decide what to watch out for and what do.   

Like their parents, the adolescent must learn to learn from life experience and profit from lessons each encounter can teach. To that end, adolescents must proceed mindfully and gather knowledge as they grow. They must:

  • make their choices,
  • take their chances,
  • face their consequences,
  • learn from the connections,
  • come to their own conclusions,
  • and carry on as best they can.

There really is no easy other way. 

Next weeks’ entry: Parenting Adolescents and the Power of Promises