Concrete vs Abstract responsibility for teenagers


Many Teenagers are struggling to complete the tasks that they are responsible for… often times their achievement is interrupted due to the fact that they view the tasks as meaningless or irrelevant to their life.

The “meaningless and irrelevant” assertion is often infuriating to parents and to the school system… We can have a very difficult time understanding how a teen is unable to comprehend the future consequences of being ‘irresponsible’ now – at this point in time.

I was contemplating this issue from both an anthropological and developmental perspective and arrived at some different realizations that may be helpful for all of us trying to teach teenagers the trait of being responsible.

I created two terms to assist in how we conceptualize responsibility

Concrete Responsibility – Responsibility in which there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the task and the result, which can be readily observed in the present moment. Additionally the task essentially always produces the desired and predictable result. ex. If I go and fetch water from the nearby stream the result is that I have water to quench my thirst in the present moment. ex.2 if I build a fire I will experience the result of having warmth in the present moment.

Abstract responsibility – Responsibility in which the consequences of an action may or may not be observable in the present moment nor in the near future. Additionally, it is possible that the task will not lead to the desired or anticipated result – instead, engaging in the responsible action may increase the probability of the desired outcome (but there is no certainty). Ex. completing a math worksheet in the present moment may increase my likelihood of attaining a ‘good’ career in the future (not only is the result abstract… but what constitutes a ‘good’ career is also abstract). Ex2. following social moral codes and local laws (not stealing, doing drugs, skipping school) may make you a more successful person in your life – and may open your life to more options (again this is abstract as being a ‘good’ person may not lead you towards social and financial success… and plenty of unethical people have achieved radical degrees of success in life).

Here are two ideas we will integrate:

1.) Anthropological Responsibilities of Teens– Teenagers have been tasked with concrete responsibilities for the majority of human existence… in recent years (the last century or so) we have moved more and more away from concrete responsibility and substituted that with abstract responsibility. For millions of years the responsibilities of a teen would have generally included: making shelter (for safety and warmth), gathering food and water, tending to the crops, hunting, defending etc – all of which are concrete responsibilities (the consequence can be conditioned to the behavior as the consequence is predictable and often immediate). In today’s USA, many teens live with a high degree of privilege – this ‘privilege’ has removed their responsibility related to many concrete variables necessary for survival. The consequence is that there has been a move toward more and more abstract responsibilities being placed on teens. They are now faced with abstract responsibilities such as; taking tests to prepare for the distance future (college and career), contemplating existentialism and the meaning of their lives, and navigating an ever-increasingly complex social network etc.


2.) Development reality concerning responsibility and the capacity of the teenage brain – Teens undergo a radical amount of brain re-structuring and the human brain is not fully matured until the mid-20s. Additionally, the highly complicated concepts of time, probability, and cause and effect are poorly developed for many teens. The result is that it may be somewhat developmentally incorrect to believe that all teens have the ability to develop ‘abstract responsibility’ in a way which would lead them to meet social expectations.

The problem!

Many teens cannot succeed in achieving abstract responsibility and therefore are hindered from growing responsibility altogether. As teens continue to fail and fail and fail at meeting the expectations of everyone around them, they suffer in their self-esteem, capacity for hope, and motivation… at the same time they can get overwhelmed with apathy or ethical indifference (which is when a teen concludes that responsibility will never make them happy so they do whatever they want to to make their own happiness). The result ranges from suicidality to disruptive and destructive behaviors.

My hypothesis is that the completion of an abstract responsibility may not be terribly effective in developing ‘responsibility’ and it is difficult (if not impossible) for the teen to successfully make an association between the responsible behavior and the consequence.

The Solution! 

For some, the solution may be as simple as maximising the opportunity for the teen to engage in concrete responsibility (and minimise the amount to which they are shamed or made to feel anxious about their inability to complete ‘abstract responsibility’ tasks.) perhaps the most dominant intervention for teens has always been contemplative – a caregiver essentially asks the teen to contemplate their inability to understand consequences … or their inability to feel motivated by abstract result in the future (again this intervention may not be developmentally useful for all teens). This new method that I am suggesting would be more environmental – simply set the teen up to succeed in responsibilities in which cause in effect is extraordinarily clear.

here are a bunch of examples of concrete responsibilities that teens tend to thrive on:

Theatre: If you take the time to learn your lines the play will continue to flow

Football: If you work out to the best of your ability you will have the strength to fulfill your job on the field.

Mountaineering: If you are properly prepared and timely you will be able to submit the mountain before the weather turns.

Cooking: If you properly follow the direction your food will be delicious.

Camping: If you take the time to set your tent up intentionally you will sleep better.

Gardening: If you pay attention to the needs of your plants they will yield your desired product.

Music: by practicing your scales you will be able to create enjoyable music with other people and to express the depth of your creative potential.

Carpentry: If you take time to make your measurements your product will have a function.

Emotional intelligence: If you take the time to deeply understand people you will feel the efficacy of your supportiveness.

Wilderness Survival: If I take responsibility for food, water, warmth, shelter, direction, and safety you will survive.


now let’s ask ourselves this humbling question – “what responsibilities are we focusing on with our teens and how might this be impacting them emotionally and existentially?”… “how are standardized tests impacting our teen’s development of responsibility and self-concept?”

In conclusion – It is possible that your teen does not require an in-patient rehabilitation center (some do for sure) – instead, they may get everything they need to experience a quantum change by dramatically increasing their access to concrete responsibility (in a setting where it is not a choice)


NOLS is an organization that already provides this service… you spend a month or more completely immersed in concrete responsibility… If you are not responsible you will be hungry, uncomfortable, thirsty, wet, and lost. NOLS was perhaps the most important intervention I received as a teen… I returned a billion times more responsible and I found my direction in life … and that isn’t why I went.















William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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