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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Problem Solving Skills for Teens
The problem. As discussed in my blog Overcoming Obstacles, many kids today don’t have solid problem solving skills. Faced with a challenge, teens often lack the ability to generate and evaluate options for change. The often wait for adults to point them in the right direction, or worse, to solve problems for them. This does little for their personal growth or maturity. Learning to problem solve, on the other hand, encourages numerous related skills that empower kids and foster independence.
Teaching a “Problem-Solving” model. There are six basic steps to any decision making model, though you can certainly tweak the steps to fit a particular circumstance or population. Some simpler problems may allow you to streamline the process, while more complex issues can benefit from the structure that this model provides.
- Define the problem and set a goal for change. This is the opportunity to verbalize what you would like to see happen. Try to be as clear as possible. The best goals are specific and measurable: For example, “Raise my Math grade to an 80” is much more helpful than “Do better in Math.” Write it down so you have a constant reminder of what you are working towards.
- Brainstorming options. Come up with as many different ideas for attacking the problem as you can. This is the time to think outside the box. Don’t stop to evaluate or criticize suggestions: the purpose of this step is to generate a free flowing exchange of suggestions. Ideas for the above goal might include things like: Get extra help from the teacher. Get a math tutor. Increase studying time. Get a study partner. Ask for study guides. Put all of the choices down on paper.
- Evaluate options. Go back over each suggestion and take a second look. Is this idea feasible? What would I need to do to make this happen? Are their constraints (time, resources, etc.) that limit the possibility of this working? For example: the family budget might not allow for a tutor, but what about a study partner? Are their ways to broaden, tweak, or combine good suggestions to make them better?
- Making a plan of action. Choose the options you think will work best and formulate an action plan. Include the specific steps you will take for each choice. For example, if one piece of the action plan is “Increase studying to one hour a night,” making a targeted plan about when, where, and how you will study might be helpful. Include a timeline with your action plan so you know when its time to evaluate how things are going.
- Evaluation and Modification. Assess how things are going. Is there steady progress towards your goal? Do changes need to be made in the plan? This is the time to revise the plan, if necessary. Cut out things that aren’t helping, and possibly revisit the list made in the brainstorming step to see if you want to add anything new. Continue to evaluate and modify until the goal is reached.
The 6 Most Important Decisions You'll Ever Make: A Guide for Teens
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