Learn how to parent today's teens by teaching responsibility

The R in AIR: Responsibility

A critical ingredient for a solid foundation in adolescent development

Parenting Today's Teens Requires a Course in Responsibility

October 30, 2020

In this episode, Penny Baker, Director of Clinical Services for Elk River Treatment Program, discusses the importance of building a foundation of accountability, integrity, and responsibility. It's hard to go wrong if you incorporate these critical elements for the healthy development of adolescents and their transition to adulthood.

Teaching Your Child Responsibility Requires Action

Hello, and welcome to On AIR with Elk River Treatment Program for teens, the residential program of Pinnacle Behavioral Health. I'm Selina Mason, the Director of Marketing and Outreach. Today we welcome back Penny Baker, who is a licensed counselor and Director of Clinical Services for the programs of Pinnacle Behavioral Health. On our last podcast, we talked about the importance of family values and character development, and how AIR factors into that. Remind us, what is A.I.R.?

AIR is the foundation of Elk River Treatment Program in our method of teaching character development and value systems to our kids and families that come through the program. AIR is a very basic concept because we all need air and AIR stands for Accountability, Integrity, and Responsibility. On previous podcasts, we've talked about the importance of accountability - of being able to hold yourself and other people accountable for healthy and positive behaviors.

Our last podcast was on integrity?

Integrity. Yes. We talked about integrity, which is being able to be your authentic self to be, to be who you are and make good choices and behave in a healthy way that is consistent, no matter who's watching. So being true to yourself no matter who you're around.

I’ve seen the quote: do the right think no matter if anyone is watching.

Absolutely. So the next step in character development for us, that's real important ... and when I talk about AIR, I really want to stress the importance that there are lots of components of family values to develop and things that are different for each individual family.

What we're talking about here is a foundation that we truly believe: If you start out with a foundation of accountability, integrity, and responsibility, you start there as a foundation, as a building block for individuals and for families to establish what their family value system is. It's hard to go wrong if you incorporate those three things. And then whatever other values that you want to incorporate in your family culture, I think is individualized each family.

So, you're definitely not saying those are the only three.

Absolutely, absolutely not. We just believe that these are three of the most critical when it comes to adolescent development and helping them transition from adolescence into young adulthood - and really learn how to be a healthy person. So, to be healthy and to make a commitment to that, do use accountability and integrity in your life - that really shows by being responsible. And when we talk about being responsible, because that that can mean a lot of things as it should, but we really focus on:

  • How does a person show responsibility for themselves?
  • How do they show responsibility in their family?
  • And how do they show responsibility in their community?

So, when we look at responsibility, it's when you commit to something, can you follow through with it? Are you being responsible with it? If you commit to a healthy lifestyle of making healthy choices, are you making responsible choices and committed to making those responsible choices? If you say, you're going to do something, do you follow through with it? Are you showing responsibility?

And the way we teach that in the program has to be more than words because what we've found in residential treatment is in order to measure true progress and character development and value system and progress on, on treatment issues. And every kid that comes into our program receives an individualized treatment plan, where we focus on their particular issues that brought them into treatment and what they need to work on individually - what they need to work on as a family.

So, we take all of that, but we have to measure progress of when are they ready to graduate the program or step down to a lower level of care. A big measurement really has to do with assessing their display of responsibility. And that is:

  • Responsibility of being able to address their own issues without having to be in residential with someone with them 24 hours a day
  • Are they being responsible in following through with communication with their family and expressing to their family?
  • Are they showing responsibility in achieving their school goals and schoolwork?
  • Are they making daily goals and being responsible for making daily challenging goals and really trying to achieve those goals?

So, responsibility becomes a key measurement of really how they're doing on their treatment issues and their readiness to go back home or a lower level of care. And what we find in a lot of programs, and I can say this: I've been involved in multiple programs for 28 years and have been associated with a lot of different programs that often see treatment as:

  • You come in.
  • Here's your assignments.
  • You check the boxes.
  • You say the right thing to the therapist.
  • You say the right thing to the psychiatrist.
  • You show that you haven't had any behaviors that are hurting yourself or someone else in this moment.

Then suddenly you have an assessment that is saying, Okay, they're done. They can go to a lower level of care or they can be discharged.

Well, kids learn that pretty quick.

They do. And we meet a lot of, not just treatment savvy, but really smart kids come through the program - and they are so savvy. They learn how to work the system.

So, if you have a system that is so simple that I just have to talk to the therapist and use the right therapy words and complete these assignments and say what I think I want you to hear, then again, they're not being responsible to themselves. And that is kind of how all of this ties together. They're not being accountable. They're not showing integrity, which means they can't show responsibility because they're not doing the other foundation pieces of character development.

So when we measure progress, we look at the whole picture and ask “do behaviors and emotions match?” Because, as the therapist, if they're telling me all the right things, and they seem like they are talking about their issues and any of their losses and their trauma, and they're showing emotion and using feelings words, and they can tell me a whole list of coping skills that they've learned. And they're saying all the right things to me. But then I know because we all collect data and we work together as a treatment team ...

And that's 24/7, right?

24/7. They are constantly being supervised and provided support. And again, we're collecting information of “how are they doing across the board?”

So, you have a lot of programs that will completely base the kid’s progress of how they're doing for that one hour in the therapist’s office, or that meeting with a psychiatrist, or for that hour of group therapy every day with a licensed therapist.

However, we've got to see that the therapeutic work matches the behaviors we're seeing.

If I talk to the frontline staff or our certified teachers or our yoga instructor, or even if they're doing experiential activities - we believe that every person who works at our program is a member of our team. Sometimes we get incredibly valuable information of that authentic behavior of how a kid is truly doing - we get from the kitchen staff.

So we are looking at taking everyone's input of how they are seeing this kid behave. They may appear to be doing great work clinically and therapeutically with the therapist, but then they’re out with their peer group and they're being disrespectful, you know, they have been given a responsibility on campus and they don't follow through with it. They're not working on their goals. They're disrespectful to the teacher. So, we've got to look at both. We've got to look at, are the behaviors matching what they're saying in therapy?

So residential gives you a wonderful opportunity to really see all of that because until those things match and you see a kid showing responsibility and an increased responsibility in their behavioral choices and how they manage themselves, you really aren't seeing a kid that's going to be ready to step down to a lower level of care or make healthy decisions when they go home.

So, for us, we measure it by looking at both: Of the therapeutic issues and the behavioral issues. And again, earlier we were talking about responsibility. A lot of those behavioral issues really do come down to how does that kid show responsibility? And when we give kids a task or we have interventions, or daily living activities that the groups are responsible for … because we really promote as they are in these smaller groups to kind of emulate family dynamics. And just like in a family, we all have responsibilities in the family.

You know, we get up, we have to make our beds. You know, someone in the house has to take out the trash. Someone has to sweep the floor. Someone has to wipe off the kitchen table after dinner, feed the dog, but for us it would be feed the horses. Because we do have horses on campus. So it's giving each of this kind of simulated family group: responsibilities. And what are they're doing again, not just responsible to themselves, but responsible to their community and family. So what are they doing or how are they holding themselves accountable and using integrity to show that they are responsible not only for themselves, but they are responsible for this other group of people to help them throughout the day.

Isn't that like one of the army models: "I'm responsible for my group and my group is responsible for me or is that kind of the concept that you're saying?"

Yes. And it's a basic group dynamic process, a group process, which is very important for the development of adolescents. Because unfortunately I think most everyone out there listening, especially if you're a parent, you've probably been frustrated a lot of times where you could tell your kid something, or make a suggestion or a recommendation of something to do, and they're not going to listen to you at all. And then one of their friends or buddies down the street could tell them the exact same thing. And then they're all about it.

It's so frustrating as a parent.

It is frustrating. But we have learned in residential treatment how to use that to our advantage. So focusing on a positive group culture. And so those values, again, of accountability, integrity, and responsibility are really just day in, day out. Those are influenced and those are promoted and that's the positive culture that's developed in the group. So as that goes along, they're hearing it from other peers. And because we have an open group process, we have constant admissions every day. We have admissions coming in. So you have a kid that's assigned to their group. And so they're a brand new kid. They don't know anything about what's happening or where they are. You know, they're having to learn everything about the program they're meeting this new group of kids. And in that same group, we're going to have kids that have already been there a little while and started to really work through learning these values of accountability, integrity, and responsibility.

So as that's promoted as the group culture, although a staff is with them at all times, sometimes the staff can give a kid feedback on the importance of those character traits and value systems and really the benefits of being responsible. You know, it just feels good when we are responsible for something, we follow through with it. And it just feels good that we've accomplished something and it makes us want to do more. And we get positives and we get that positive reinforcement from other people. Kids learned that that feels good, but they learn that it feels good not because the staff says, Hey, if you do this, it's going to feel good. They're hearing other kids, you know what? I've been in your shoes when I got here. And when I started to do these things and really focus on them, it feels better. And they will listen to that other kid.

It's a trusted source.

Absolutely. So we use that positive peer culture to really, to our advantage, to help the kids grow and learn. So responsibility becomes a big part of that. So if you have a group and you have to get a task done to get through the day, whether it's your responsibilities, again, like we said to clean up after you've had lunch or to clean your cabin, once you get up in the morning, all the kids have to pitch in. And when one person doesn't pitch in it affects the whole group. So that concept that in the group, and we talked to the kids a lot about anything you do in the group, doesn't just impact you. It has an impact on the entire group. You know, if someone refuses to get out of bed in the morning, that's going to put the entire group late. There are consequences that happen with that.

You're going to be late to breakfast or you're going to be late to school. And, you know, oftentimes, especially with newer kids, we always hear, well, that's unfair, you know, my treatment or my daily schedules, shouldn't be affected by all the other kids. Well, first there's a measurement for us of that kid's understanding of responsibility of, you're not just responsible for yourself. You're responsible for the entire group and helping them understand that concept of responsibility is then completely - the plan is to have that translated to at home. You were part of a family because we hear all the time from kids that come in (and say) Well, I don't see what the issue is. My choices and my behaviors only affect me. They don't affect anyone else. I know I'm smoking pot all day, but that only impacts me that doesn't impact anyone else. I know I skipped school. That only impacts me that doesn't impact anyone else.

You sound really like a teenager now.

So, you know, we hear all of this all the time. And again, part of that responsibility piece and the character development is no, we are all responsible for ourselves and our own choices, but we are also responsible for knowing that our choices have an impact on our family and our community. And we have a responsibility to take that into consideration with whatever we do. So whether I'm smoking pot all day as a kid, that doesn't just impact me. That impacts my family. That emotionally, that may impact my family. If I'm smoking pot all day, I'm probably not doing my responsibilities and holding up my end of helping the family just in daily life. I'm also probably creating some stress and anxiety for my family and worry and concern.

So it doesn't just affect you. Any of us, none of us live in a bubble, you know, whatever we do affects everyone else in our family or everyone else in our group and everything that everyone else in the group also impacts us. And we have to take responsibility for that as well. So that's a big concept that we find is kind of a great measurement of is someone showing accountability for themselves or others, are they showing integrity in their interactions? And if they are, then they're going to begin to demonstrate an understanding of how to be responsible for myself and making healthy choices and how that responsibility also impacts my responsibilities to my, my group or at home, my family, and also the responsibilities I have for my community to make good choices and how my choices can impact the greater good.

So I encourage all of you out there listening that whether it's individually or with your family - really work on establishing, what is your value system? Do you know what your value system is? If I came to you today and I said, write down for me, what is your personal value system? What is your family value system? Would you be able to do it?

Do you have that pretty concrete settled in your head what that is? And my challenge, especially for you parents that are listening is if you can't answer the question that you have a pretty good sense of what your family value system is and what you want the character traits to be developed in your family, there's no way your kids can develop that until you establish that first. So again, I encourage all of you. What are your values? What's important to you for you, for your family and how you want to parent your kids. And teaching the concepts of accountability, integrity, and responsibility, and how important those things are in the foundations of developing a value system. We find that those things are so critical in a kid's transition to home or a lower level of care. And even their transition into adulthood that we actually have one of the last assignments that they complete before they graduate the program.

We actually have them write out what their personal creed of values are. And once they write that out, not only do they share that with their family, where there's a very clear cut communication of what that kid values as a person and in their family and as a community, and what's important to them. We also also ask them to read it to the entire campus where they can show their commitment to "this is what I have now learned is important to me and what I value as the type of life I should lead, the characters I should display, and what's important to me."

I would really like to read some of those. I think it'd be exceptionally important for families to develop a family creed and maybe revisit that from time to time, maybe every day or every month or every year, just to revisit that.

But that's a great assignment. We've had several times where we had asked families to create one as well. Um, especially if they had a difficult time and didn't really have something solid to start with. And it's been amazing to see the communication that would develop and just an increased understanding with the entire family of truly what's important for this family and what they all feel as a family unit, that they need to be healthy in their lives.

That's got to be part of what is rewarding about this work that you do at Elk River.

Every day is an amazing experience of seeing whether it's a kid or a parent finally have that moment where it all makes sense, and they have an understanding of their family, a better understanding of their kid, of their parenting style. And for some of our parents for the first time in a long time, they also start to feel a sense of hope for their kids' future.

Well, we all need that. We need hope and we need AIR. So thanks again Penny for being here today and thanks for listening to On AIR with Elk River Treatment Program, the residential program of Pinnacle Behavioral Health, where teens learn the value of AIR. To learn more about our residential program for teens, visit elkrivertreatment.com, or you can email [email protected]. We'll see you next time.