Ever looked at your child in bewilderment and asked: “What were you thinking?!” Then you know that kids, especially teens, can make some profoundly poor decisions. Luckily, we can help them learn smart decision-making skills and manage mistakes—without feeling the need to helicopter over their every move.
Blame biology. “Understand that your kids aren’t just being stupid and emotional about things. The adolescent brain is very uneven,” says pediatric psychologist Stephen Lassen, Ph.D. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which handles decision-making, isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25. Given the number of decisions kids must make as they move into early adulthood—college, career, relationships—this “makes for a challenging environment for parents,” Lassen says.
Give choices at an early age. Prime the decision-making pump beginning in toddlerhood. Offer your child simple choices that you can live with like: “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt?” “Would you like to take a bath before or after dinner?” “Giving options like that not only helps them start to think through decisions, make decisions and accept consequences of those decisions, but it also sends the message that kids can do it, which tends to build self-confidence,” Lassen says.
give age-appropriate choices. You know what decisions your child is ready for based on past history, development and personality. “When decisions involve their safety or potential significant long-term consequences, that’s when we want to have an input,” says pediatric psychologist Christina Low Kapalu, Ph.D.
Establish ground rules. With each new freedom, clearly explain your expectations with the understanding that privileges can be pulled back again. “It’s a process. The research really shows that authoritative parenting style, which is just setting limits and enforcing clear limits with lots of warmth and engagement serves us well in the teenage years,” says therapist Julie Gettings, MSW-LSCSW. “If they make a poor decision or if we’ve given them too much freedom, then sometimes we have to pull the rope back a little bit.”
permissions with parameters. “Kids will come to us with a request, and we immediately want to say, ‘no, you can’t do that.’ But take a step back, pause and think about ‘what can I be okay with within that request?’” Gettings advises.
Wait to be needed. Resist swooping in and rescuing your child from the consequences of their poor decision. For example, if they forgot their science homework, they’ll have to face the consequence. “We want our kids to be happy and do well, but so much of being a healthy, well-functioning adult is learning from difficult experiences where decisions didn’t go well,” Lassen says.
Build confidence. Reinforce the positive by consistently praising the wise choices your child makes. For kids who experience anxiety around decision-making, give them multiple opportunities to make small decisions and praise them for simply making a choice even if you aren’t a fan of the decision. Avoid causing them to second-guess by saying things like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” which can further breed uncertainty. “The more decisions you make, the more comfortable you are with things maybe not working out perfectly, maybe even failing,” Lassen says.
Reflect on decisions. We all make decisions that we later regret. “Stress to your child that you love them even if you don’t like their decision,” Low Kapalu says. Rather than harshly interrogating or criticizing your child, facilitate a thoughtful, logical discussion, which will help them feel safe coming to you when they make mistakes.