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/ Sep 04, 2018

Parents and Teens: Making Important Decisions Together

Teens Parents

Dr. Victoria Miller, a clinical psychologist at the CPTC, co-authored this piece

Work Together in Making Decisions

We are all faced with decisions, both big and small, on a daily basis. During adolescence, teens face increasingly complex dilemmas. What friends do I fit in with? Should I try out for the team? When do I choose to follow, and when to lead? What college should I apply to? When do I ask for help, and when do I try to figure things out on my own? What job should I prepare for? The list goes on. Parents play an important role in supporting teens to make wise decisions. But this is often easier said than done. We must learn how to balance our teens’ need for growing independence with our own duty to guide and protect.

Our goal as parents is to position teens to become healthy, successful young adults. Part of adolescence includes making decisions that impact the future. And everyday, young people make choices that can affect their health and well-being, just as they will continue to do as adults. Shaping our teens’ ability to wisely make decisions is a critical way we can guide them to be healthy and safe today, and successful tomorrow. How do we encourage our teens to share important decisions with us now, so we can equip them with the tools required to make independent decisions in the future?

Honor and Respect Teen Development

It starts by honoring teens’ independence by including them in decisions that directly impact them. It also must include being a sounding board as they strengthen their capacity to think through decisions. This stands in sharp contrast to “I’ll tell you what to do” lectures, which tend to push our children away from us. It is also about staying calm as our teens think through their decisions with us – even if we (occasionally) want to scream inside. It is our steady presence that grants them the safety to access the wisest part of their brains.

During adolescence, the reasoning part of the brain (the frontal cerebral cortex) is undergoing rapid development. This creates a critical opportunity for parents to shape decision making. The emotional – or reactive – parts of the brain are also developing very quickly. In fact, the intense emotional nature of some adolescents is a sign of the development of their ability to feel, empathize, and care. The challenge is that stress, or heightened emotions, make it harder for anyone (teens and adults included!) to think critically. In a state of calm, the reasoning centers have the ability to dominate decision making. But when emotions run high, the ability to problem solve is diminished. When we assure decisions are made in a calm state, we optimize the chances our teens will develop these lifelong skill-sets.

Discussion Tip
Stress and strong emotions make it difficult to make thoughtful decisions. Remaining calm increases the chances that teens will make wise choices.
Both teens and parents have important contributions to make to the decision-making process.

Strategies for Promoting Wise Decision-Making

There are communication strategies parents can use to equip their teens with the skills needed to make wise, healthy decisions on their own. Here are some key tactics to consider.

1) Promote Independence

Give teens the independence required to make decisions when possible, and gradually increase this independence as they demonstrate good decision-making and mature choices. Remember that age and physical development should not be used as markers for when teens are ready for increased decision-making independence because they may not adequately represent the maturity of their thinking. Look for clues that your teen is ready to take on more responsibility. Some of these clues include the ability to: 1) think about future consequences of decisions and behaviors; 2) identify the pros and cons of different options; and 3) think before acting (i.e., have good “impulse control”).

2) Model Healthy Decision-Making

Talk through your thinking process when you are making decisions for yourself so your teen can understand the different aspects of making decisions. Our children are always watching and many learn best by viewing others.

3) Encourage Teens to Have a Voice

For decisions that involve teens, think about how to seek out their opinion, concerns, and ideas. For example, you might ask: “What do you think about this?”, “What concerns do you have?”, or “What do you think we should do?”.  For some teens, it might be more helpful to offer a few ideas and then ask what they think. Be open to them when they express themselves and their opinions. Even for major decisions for which you will have the ‘final say,’ teens can still have a voice. When teen’s feel that they have a voice, they consider the decision-making process more fair.

4) Be Available

Be ready to provide guidance and support for decision-making when your teen asks for it. Although we sometimes assume teens want to make decisions on their own, they typically want parental guidance for big decisions and are frustrated when they don’t receive the support they need.

5) Plan Ahead

Help your teen think ahead about situations in which decision-making might be more difficult, such as in emotional situations or when peers are present. These are times when teens may be more likely to act on emotion instead of thinking things through more carefully. When they enter a challenging setting with a thoughtful plan already in place they may be more likely to make wiser decisions in the heat of the moment.

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How to Let Your Teen be the Expert

No one knows more about your teen … than your teen! Read on to learn how to let your teen be the expert in his/her own life. And why this is so valuable.

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Empower Your Teen

It’s empowering for your teen when you involve him/her in decision-making and problem-solving. It shows you believe your teen is capable. This empowers a sense of pride and know-how.

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Collaborate With Your Teen

While adults have the wisdom of experience, young people have the best insight into what it’s like to be a teen today. Work together to determine how much of your input any given situation may require. (Maybe none!)

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Encourage Problem Solving

Support your teen’s growing confidence to come up with successful problem-solving strategies. Avoid jumping in and making your teen feel less than capable.

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Let Your Teen Make Mistakes

This isn’t always easy. But sometimes the best way for your teen to become an expert is through trial and error. That means making mistakes. And learning how to bounce back.

The Importance of Working Together

Both teens and parents have important contributions to make to the decision-making process. Parents can provide information to teens about different choices, consider the pros and cons of each option, and offer emotional support. They may also have a role to play in helping to implement whatever decision has been made.

It is important for teens to be involved because it provides the opportunity to practice making decisions, while still receiving support and guidance from parents. Being part of the process may promote teens’ confidence in making future decisions on their own. Young people may also have knowledge or information that parents don’t have that may inform the decision. Encouraging youth to share this information as well as their opinions ensures that teens and parents are “on the same page.”

Build A Decision-Making Partnership

Parents are important sounding boards as teens both think and talk through decisions. We guide our teens to weigh the pros and cons of various options and consider the potential consequences of certain actions. When parents maintain open communication and encourage teens to participate in decision-making, we prepare them with the skills needed to make independent, wise decisions and establish a mutually respectful relationship.

Model how you thoughtfully make important decisions in your own life. When you seek advice from a friend or talk through different choices with your partner or spouse, you show your teen how partnering with others supports your ability to make important decisions. A decision-making partnership between parents and teens is an important strategy for promoting teens’ growing independence while balancing parents’ need to protect.

When Things Go Wrong

Even the best thought-out decisions can end up leading to consequences different than we had hoped. This may be when our teens need us the most.

Adolescence is the time to learn to fail and recover. Failure offers opportunities for new, wiser decisions to be made that are informed by experience. This is a good thing! When we come down hard on our teens when things go wrong, they may choose to stop telling us what goes badly in their lives. On the other hand, when we frame mistakes as opportunities for growth, they will invite us to guide them as they develop and try out a second (hopefully better!!) plan.

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Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed, is the Senior Manager of Center Operations at the CPTC. Drawing on her expertise in human development, she frequently writes for the CPTC and is co-author of the Say This, Not That podcast series. Elyse's degree is in Psychology and Human Development from the University of Pennsylvania School of Education.

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