The teenage years are often filled with decision-making. Some of those decisions are small (should I keep my plans with Tracy or drop them for a date with John?) while others can have lifelong ramifications (should I call my parents for a ride or take the chance that my friend is too drunk to drive safely?). As a parent, you can take steps to help your teen make good decisions while keeping in mind that bad decisions are going to be par for the course of adolescence. Here are some ways that you can help your teen while still letting them maintain some autonomy when it comes to making the types of choices that they’ll continue to make once they are no longer living in your home.
Look at Issues From Your Teen’s Perspective
Because you have decades of experience, there are some decisions that seem like no-brainers to you and might be frustrating when your teenager chooses the opposite path. For example, if it’s the week before final exams and your teen chooses to blow off studying to hang out with a boy- or girlfriend, your irritation can skyrocket when your child seems flabbergasted by the poor grades he or she has earned. It can be helpful to talk to your teen without judgement to help determine what their perspective is (or was).
Choose a time when your teen is relaxed, and just chat about the situation. In the studying scenario, you might say something like, “I know it’s much more fun to hang out with Jamie than it is to study for your tests. Do you have a plan in mind for when you will get the studying done?” Approaching it in this way can encourage your teen to think ahead and make good decisions. It can also bring you peace of mind because maybe he or she really does have a plan.
Brainstorm All Options and Decide on One
If a decision needs to be made and your adolescent doesn’t know how to handle it (or is about to handle it poorly), one way to help them make good decisions is to help them brainstorm all their options. Take some time to sit down and make a list with your teen. He or she might make some offbeat or illogical suggestions; don’t judge them yet. Just write them down so you can evaluate them together. Add some of your own suggestions, too, while keeping an open mind that none of your ideas might be acceptable to your teen.
Once you have both been able to suggest several ways to handle the upcoming situation (or better ways to handle a situation that was handled poorly), choose the best one together. It might be that you disagree on which is the best option. If your teen’s safety isn’t going to be at risk, it’s usually best to let him or her make the final decision, if possible. It might also work to have Plan A and Plan B, with your child’s first choice as Plan A. If that doesn’t work, he or she can then move along to try Plan B.
Check In and Remind Your Teen of the Decision
Once a decision has been made on how to handle the situation, it’s important to hold your teen accountable. If he or she says that they will go out with their friend during the week and catch up on studying on the weekends, hold them to it. Treat the decision like a commitment and encourage your teen to do the same. This is an important step with young teenagers or those who don’t have a lot of decision-making experience yet.
Once your teen is older and getting closer to adulthood, you should not have to check in as much. If your older teen is still having trouble sticking with decisions, however, then this is something you might need to continue to work on.
Role-Play Possible Scenarios
Particularly in cases where a bad choice could lead to an extremely bad outcome (such as getting in the car with an impaired driver or shoplifting at the urging of friends), it can be helpful to role-play some scenarios. It’s possible that your teenager will not want to go along with this, so you might have to suggest it in more of a “what would you do if….” way rather than actually sitting down to act out different roles.
For example, if you are afraid that your teen might not make the good decision to call you if a driving friend is impaired even though they insist they would, try asking questions like:
- “What if it was 1:00 am and your curfew was midnight, so you knew you would be in trouble for staying out late?”
- “What if your friend only had one beer and seemed fine?”
Talking through these potential situations can get your teen’s gears moving and help him or her to make good decisions in the future, even if you haven’t touched upon the particular scenario they find themselves in.
Let Your Teen Make Mistakes
One hard part of parenting is letting teens make mistakes. By letting them experience the natural consequences of their poor decisions early in the teen years, you can encourage them to make good decisions later, when the stakes are likely higher. A young teen who finds that his or her friend is angry about being dropped for a romantic interest will learn more from that situation than they’d learn from you lecturing them about how to be a good friend. A teen who gets a bad grade on an important test after blowing off studying will be getting an education in more than biology, algebra, or whatever subject they bombed.
Obviously, this does not apply to life-or-death situations or to those that have a likelihood of impacting your adolescent’s life in the future. For example, try your best not to let your 16-year-old drop out of high school, don’t allow them to experiment with drugs on your watch, and strongly encourage your teen to wait on sex or to use reliable birth control.
Since the rational part of a young person’s brain is not fully developed until the early 20s or even later, in some cases, it’s very likely that your adolescent will eventually make some poor decisions. Your job as a parent is to try to minimize the damage by teaching good decision-making skills that will get him or her through the teen years and beyond.