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Understanding Teen Decision Making

— U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Updated on Feb 17, 2011

What was he thinking? How could she? If you find yourself wondering what your teen was thinking, the answer may be “not much.” Kids often make snap judgments based on impulse, especially when situations come up quickly, leaving teens with little time to sort through the pros and cons.

Some of those hasty decisions may involve cheating in school; skipping class; using alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs; going somewhere or being with someone that you do not approve of; or driving too fast. But the consequences can include losing your trust, letting down friends, getting into trouble, hurting education and job prospects, causing illness or injury, or leading to other reckless behavior.

Explaining Bad Decisions

As for how he could do it, here are some common efforts to justify missteps:

  • Because I wanted to. Enough said—this only works if you are alone on an island with no rules and only yourself to consider.
  • Everybody does it. People often try to duck responsibility by showing that their actions—drinking alcohol, staying out too late, or sharing test questions—are in line with the values and likings of their social group.
  • What else could I do? This excuse is a sign of failure to see all the available choices, such as leaving the party or not riding with a certain person.
  • But I said I would. Once people decide on something, they tend to stick with it—keeping a date, hosting a party, bringing alcohol. No one likes to admit they’re wrong, appear timid, or disappoint others.
We should make decisions based on our values, not just because we come across tempting choices.1

Building a Foundation

To avoid decisions that are rushed and based on little more than a desire for fun and peer approval, teens need a solid basis for making wise choices.

Setting Standards

The first step a teen can take toward good decisions is to know herself. This calls for a set of rules about what she is willing or not willing to do. If her rules apply to a situation, then the decision will be automatic. Parents can show the way to good conduct through example and by promoting values—explaining them and showing how they fit specific choices. Starting early ensures that standards have deep roots, but it is never too late to lay out a guide for conduct.

Developing Confidence

When teens—or adults—are unsure of themselves, they are more likely to give in to social pressure. When a teen feels good about himself, it improves the odds that he will make good decisions. Parents can build teens’ self-confidence by teaching them to think for themselves. Ask your teen for his opinion, even about small issues. Urge him to make decisions. Praise him for positive choices, and let him know that you appreciate him and his achievements. Expose him to activities, people, places, and ideas—doing so will broaden his outlook and help to limit the influence of peers. The likely result is a teen who doesn’t worry about what others say, thinks things through, and chooses wisely.

Asking Questions

Even when a teen has personal rules, some choices may not be clear-cut. She may be torn by wanting to keep a promise or help a friend, or she may be tempted to make an exception because her actions seem like they won’t be so bad. A few handy questions can cut through the fog of doubt.

What’s the Downside?

Rewards such as fun, excitement, popularity, and asserting one’s freedom are easy to see, but getting teens to focus on risks can be tough. Teens tend to think bad things can’t happen to them. When teens do see risks, they may feel that the chances of getting caught or harmed are small. Because teens are “now-oriented,” far-off consequences may carry little weight. So highlight 1) bad things that can happen right away and 2) things that teens dread such as looking foolish, smelling bad, losing friends, missing out on social events, and not being able to drive.

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