Your tween or teen probably isn’t chomping at the bit to take on chores, even though giving them some manageable household tasks undoubtedly helps lighten your load while also teaching them the value of pitching in at home. But if your kid is going through something — and they very well might be, given the spike in reported cases of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health conditions caused or exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic — you might wonder if it’s better to ease off them and take on your tween or teen’s to-do list yourself.
Sure, you want to create space for your child to rest and refrain from adding to a responsibility load that’s already intense, thanks to schoolwork and other extracurriculars, jobs, and social events. But one psychologist argues that providing your tween or teen with the opportunity to chip in with manageable chores can provide structure — in turn, helping them feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence.
Are Chores Really That Big of a Deal?
“Chores are important for tweens/teens with mental health issues because it gives them a sense of mastery and accomplishment,” says Terri Bacow, Ph.D., New York-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety. “Chores provide structure,” she adds, “which is something that has been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression across the age spectrum.”
Bacow notes that your kid will notice if you’re suddenly walking on eggshells around them and treating them differently. “It is important for tweens/teens to feel that they are just like everyone else, despite struggling with a mental health issue,” she says.
Still, when your child is going through an emotionally turbulent time, you probably won’t want to go all boot camp on them about emptying the trash or tidying their bedroom. “It is always best to parent flexibly and to take the situation and circumstances into account when making parenting decisions,” says Bacow. “If your child has too much on their plate, you will of course make an exception. It may be helpful to have a collaborative conversation with your child and problem-solve and/or work out a compromise. For example, they will skip their regular chores this week but help out with one specific task over the weekend.”
How to Set Reasonable Chores By Age
“Parents should always take their child’s developmental stage into account when assigning chores,” says Bacow, continuing, “Light or ‘fun’ chores (such as putting away their toys) tend to be better for the younger set. Younger kids enjoy being the ‘parents' helper.’ As children get older, they can handle tasks that involve more independence and autonomy, as well as a touch more responsibility.” That might mean washing dishes, vacuuming or tidying up their bedrooms and other rooms in the house, or helping with laundry.
If you’ve designated responsibilities to your tween/teen and find that they’re not doing them or rushing through — not out of normal adolescent rebellion but because there’s something deeper going on — Bacow recommends approaching your child gently but firmly. “Parents should approach conversations about chores with empathy and flexibility, and it is always possible to blend empathy with firmness,” she says. “In a warm tone, you can say things like, ‘I understand you are having a hard time right now. I would like you to try to continue to take out the trash [or insert other chore here] daily, but if it gets to be too much, let me know and we will work something else out.’”
You can also help make things easier on your kid by setting up a solid framework for success. “Parents can definitely support kids by leaving reminder notes, using a calendar, checklist, or chart — these visual cues can be really helpful for kids and allow them to keep track of their progress,” says Bacow. “Verbal reminders can work too, but this can sometimes lead to nagging, which you’ll want to avoid. A verbal reminder should be direct (‘Please do not forget to take the trash out today. Thank you — I appreciate it!’). It is also helpful if they can pair the chore with something pleasant like listening to music or teaming up with someone else (a parent or sibling) in completing the task.”
To Reward or Not To Reward
Unsure whether or not you should give an allowance for completing chores, especially when they’re already struggling? Bacow gives two thumbs up on a small reward for a job well done if it’s within your means and you like to do so. “An allowance allows them to learn the relationship between cause and effect and develop a sense of mastery and pride (i.e. feeling good about the process of doing chores),” she says. “Allowance is also good science — research shows that incentivizing behavior can be incredibly effective with children and adolescents. Incentivizing sometimes gets a ‘bad rap’ but it is based on behavioral learning theory; we often learn best when there are motivational enhancements (i.e. ‘If you study for a test, you will get a good grade’). Kids can also save their money and learn financial independence, which is a plus!”
Terri Bacow, Ph.D., New York-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety