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«How many times have I asked you to unpack the dishwasher?!? 10 step plan to get teens to do chores on time every time For many of the parents of ...»

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How many times have I asked you

to unpack the dishwasher?!?

10 step plan to get teens to do

chores on time every time

For many of the parents of teens I work with, one of the main sources of irritation

about their teen is chores. Parents say to me: “they don’t lift a finger” or “I have to

nag them constantly” or “it’s just easier to do it myself” or “I ask them a thousand

times and then they do it half-heartedly”.

If this sounds like you, take heart in the fact you are not alone. However, the truth is: all teens should be contributing to housework. It is vital that teens be cleaning up after themselves, preparing meals for the household, cleaning up after meals, cleaning household areas, looking after cars or gardens, doing some washing (their own or the households), or vacuuming, dusting and so on.

Why is this so important? First, once they have been trained to do these things, it makes for less stressed and angry parents – which in turn is beneficial for the teenager. Second, doing chores teaches teens’ responsibility, housework skills and the ability to manage time, boredom and gives them a sense of accomplishment. There has been some long range research showing that children who have been trained and expected to help with household chores in their younger years have a higher self-esteem and sense of responsibility when they are adults.

That’s the good news. Now the bad news: training teens to do chores is a parents’ job. And it requires commitment, a lot of patience and iron will dedication. It is not going to save you time initially – it is going to TAKE time AWAY from you. But it can be done. I have seen many families work on this and come back after a few weeks with the issue resolved – and surprisingly, both parent AND teen are happier.

The “How” of training teens doing chores Before you start: this program of training teens works well if you have a generally positive relationships with your teen: in other words, you frequently praise and thank the teen about things not related to chores, you regularly (every few days at least) have short, positive conversations with your teen (eg TV, friends, sport etc), at least once per fortnight you have some time one on one together (eg driving them to sport etc), you would laugh at something together at least once a week, you apologise to your teen when you are irritable and they apologise to you, you and your teen argue but rarely swear at/call each other names and your teen will tell you things about their day/week at least occasionally. If your relationship has deteriorated so that these things are not true for you, this training program will have little effect and should not be used. There are significantly more important areas of your relationship to work on and you need to do these first.

1. Set up a time to have an initial conversation with the teenager about the

chores that need to be done:

“Jo, we need to sit down some time and have a chat about the housework and how that is happening around here, it will probably take about 20 minutes, when would work for you?" Don’t expect they will want to have this conversation, they probably won’t, and some of them will hate it. Be sympathetic about this, (“I know, talking about this stuff is boring and painful, I wish we didn’t have to do it too”). Give them choice about when the conversation happens, where it happens but insist that it happens.

2. In this conversation, bring pen and paper or have laptop at the ready and formalise an agreement in writing.

Tell the teen that as a family, you need to sort out who does what to keep things working in the house and that you want to try to sort out a trial system. This system will only be in operation for a short number of weeks initially (I suggest 2-4 weeks). Write out all the jobs that have to happen morning, night and weekends to keep household running. Ask them which ones they would be able to contribute to – either daily tasks, weekly or monthly. Start small. If they haven’t been doing anything at all, then one small job each week is enough to start with. Otherwise, a couple of jobs is appropriate. Once decided, write out a task list of who does what, when and how. Now here is the first crucial point: This task list must be extremely specific. In other words each task has a) an exact time by which the job has been completed, and b) dot points about what it means to complete the job. For example, it does not say, “Kate will clean the bathroom”. It says, “Kate mops bathroom floor, cleans toilet with brusth, puts away everything on benchtops and then wipes then down so no toothpaste showing. Completed by 11.15 Saturdays”.

Here’s the really important part about having this conversation: be determined to be pleasant, fair, respectful, cheerful, calm and kind. Don’t yell, don’t get angry, don’t look stressed and irritable, and don’t play the guilt card. Don’t tell them you ”just can’t cope any more” or how unfair it has been that you do everything. Don’t focus on what HAS happened in the past, but what will happen now. Here’s another extremely important point – do not be condescending or patronising – a rule of thumb is to talk to your teen as though they are 5 years older than they really are – almost as though you are talking to a work colleague, not a child. But even so you must come out of this conversation with specific tasks in writing. Give the teen a copy, or post it somewhere visible.

3. Once you have established what the teenager is going to do and when, then talk about how these chores can be 1) remembered and not forgotten about, and 2) as pleasant and as easy to do as possible.

To discuss this, ask teens: is there anything I can do to help you remember to do this? Ask whether a phone reminder, visual reminder, some kind of system might help? Ask teens how the job might be easier for them to do: Ask whether they need the vacuum to be stored somewhere else? Do they need washing baskets in their room? Do they have all the things they need to do it? Also ask teens whether they have any ideas how to make the job less unpleasant. Suggest that music might make it more fun? Can they do it while you are doing your job and talk with you at the same time?

4. Before you finish, mention the good things that will happen if everyone completes their tasks on time.

Include things like, “less arguing”, “calmer parents” and possibly even some natural rewards such as “more time on Sunday night to have take away and watch a family movie” if that would fit with your family routines. Some families use pocket money as rewards for chores. If you do this, keep in mind two potential dangers: first, using money can undermine the message that chores are part of household expectations anyway. The second danger is that the teenager might decide they would rather skip the chore and not get the money, which leaves parents without many options. Usually I would try to keep money out of it – but some families seem to manage it okay. Some families have set chores that are done regardless and extra chores for money.

Now your work begins.

Now that you have had this conversation and set up your systems, you have done about 20% of the training involved in getting your teens to do chores. The rest of

the training begins now. Here’s how you start:

5. Don’t “nag” the teen before the job deadline.

If you think they might have forgotten, some simple and cheerful (not stressed or irritable) reminders are fine, but don’t repeatedly talk about it.

6. When you set a job for your teen to do, you need to know whether the teen has actually completed the job.

This means you need to put aside time to check each job, right after the agreed upon completion time. Don’t just “hope” they are doing it. The teen knowing you are checking the whether the job is important, but don’t make a big deal of telling them you are going to check – this feels condescending and overbearing.

When (yes..when not if) they forget, not bother or are too busy.

Your teen may well get their tasks done without nagging during the first week (the value of novelty!), or maybe the second. But at some point, they will forget, not

bother or get too busy. Expect this to happen. Here’s what you do next:

7. Very soon after the job time completion (ie within approx 24 hours), tell them that you need to have a brief followup conversation with them about what went wrong.

Once again, the teen will not want to have this follow up conversation (they will be annoyed, disinterested, angry) but don’t take that personally. But gently and kindly insist that you talk about it: this conversation is an essential part of the

process. Here’s how to do it:

Make the assumption that there were some valid, difficult barriers they had difficulty overcoming in order to BE ABLE to do this job. These barriers include lack of time, difficulty remembering, trouble coping with boredom, not seeing the reason for doing things, it being tough physically and so on. The purpose of the follow up conversation is to try understand the barriers, and to help coach the teen to overcome these barriers next time. Don’t act mad, yell or criticise. Gently and kindly ask some questions: what made it hard? Did they forget? What other things were they doing? Is there anything else you or others could have done to help them remember? Is there a system that could help them remember to do it? Analyse this yourself – what do you think made them forget/fail to do this?

Once you have figured out what went wrong, you might need to make some adjustments to the system if appropriate (it was too busy Saturday morning, change to Sunday – or the teen forgot, they need a phone reminder – or they didn’t do the bathroom mirror, we need to add that to the list). Once you have done this, invite the teenager to have another attempt at getting the job done. Tell them (and remind yourself) that you are 100% committed to making sure they get into the habit of doing this. But that you are going to do it nicely J

8. When it doesn’t happen for the second time: have another conversation about why.

They will detest this conversation even more than the last one. But be firm AND compassionate (“I know it sucks to talk about this. But we have to figure out how you can remember to do the bathroom, it needs to happen, and I want to help you be able to do it.”) Give them choice about when the conversation happens (“Okay, I’m happy to not talk about it right now. We can talk about it after tea if you like, or tomorrow morning – what suits you best?”). When you talk about it – do not lecture, tell them how annoyed you are, why it has to happen or tell them why they are irresponsible. Start with asking more questions (“why do you think you forgot? What was the worst thing about doing it? Does it not seem important? Did you struggle to find time to do it? Did you think you could do it later? Why else was it hard to do it? Etc). Also ask them if you can help them make sure they remember, find time for it and prioritise it. You may need to look at their time management generally to make sure they are not overloaded and have space for this. You may need to look at their own systems so that they have regular times allocated for chores, so it doesn’t get crammed in and forgotten by the end of the week. Your teen needs your help with this. You will need to keep having these conversations with teens – time after time. Remember, your child didn’t learn to read after one or two lessons, and this is just as hard. These conversations are PART of the process, it is not an indication that things have failed.

–  –  –

Here are some important points about using


First, when you impose these consequences be calm and sympathetic rather than angry and punishing. Don’t yell, take it personally or tell your teenager they are lazy, thoughtless and selfish. If you do that, they will go into “defend and attack” mode and their brain will be so emotionally fired up they will be less able to learn and think. Don’t give a five minute ramble about why you wouldn’t have had to do it if they hadn’t been so irresponsible. Use less words. The lesson is in the experience, not in the accompanying lecture.

Second, make consequences short term and small rather than long term and major. Use the consequence of “taking phone/computer away” with great caution. This is a very painful experience for teens (Imagine you being forbidden to see your partner, or for your own phone to be removed. It hurts a lot) and should only be used when you have really tried everything else.

Third, never use consequences in isolation. Consequences are less important than the coaching conversations described above. Contrary to what many parents think, we as humans do not learn most from punishment. We learn most from someone coaching us through and helping us to do something. You will be able to see this in your own life – think about a skill you were struggling with – how did you learn it? Often it is through someone helping you, rather than getting punished from doing being able to do it.

10. When the teen does do their chore: make sure you thank them.

Tell them you appreciate it. Tell them why it means a lot to you. Don’t go overboard, but make sure you make a point of mentioning it. Some parents say, “why should I thank them – they don’t thank ME for the things I do for them? And besides, they are just doing what they SHOULD be doing anyway?” I understand this feeling. But thanking teens for doing chores is helpful for three reasons, a) it models and shows them how you would like them to thank you, b) it increases the positive relationship between parents and teens, and c) it makes teens feel like doing it again.

Finally, keep using the steps above, and don’t give up early. Remember you are training your teenager and any break from this training (I can’t be bothered following up on them not vacuuming this week because I’m too tired) means they will go backwards. This is not going to happen overnight, and you will have to revisit chores constantly through adolescence. But the effort will be worth it – for both you and them.

What has Kirrilie been doing this month?

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