Parents, Therapists And Other Adults Need To Help Teens Be Decision Makers
As a therapist who works with teens, I know teens have to face tons and tons of decisions all the time. The reality of being a teenager is there are certain adult decisions that have to be made for you. You can’t, for example, sell drugs, drive drunk, move out or spend money you don’t have. Most of these limits are obvious, while others, parents need to grapple with and arrive at a decision that works for them.
Beyond these safety-related, high-level issues, the task of parents and adults who care about teens needs to be helping teens become decision makers and develop in their capacity to do so.
Decision-Making (And Owning That Decision) Is A Skill Of Adulthood
We don’t talk enough about decision-making as a skill of adulthood. Decisions are hard–understanding the costs and benefits can be difficult, even for adults. In as much as we do talk about decisions, we talk a good deal about the what–the X versus Y portion of the decision.
But, the thing that’s decided and how that decision is executed are two separate things. Teens need to learn to “go with it” once they’ve made a decision. Part of the skill of decision-making is recognizing that once one has made a decision, one owns that decision.
For instance, if I decided to spend my summer earnings on a beat-up car and that car stopped running, I need to own that. It’s on me. Maybe I made a thoughtful choice–one in which I was aware of the consequences and weighed them carefully. Or perhaps, I made a thoughtless choice. Nevertheless, the consequences are mine, so now what?
Like this example, an important aspect of decision-making is also owning mistakes–being able to say, “I screwed up. This is on me.” It’s important that teens learn how to face the consequences.
Being A Decision Maker Can Also Be Political For Teens
There’s also something political about decision-making for teens, meaning standing up for values, for friends and for people who aren’t friends. High school is an incredibly political environment–maybe one of the most political. Teens I see in therapy tell me horror stories about social hierarchies, bullying and other really ruthless stuff. It’s Shakespearean and teens can often feel like they don’t have a lot of choices in how they navigate these environments. To them, the structures and rules seem fixed.
But, I think there are more choices available to be made than teens realize. These choices do require swimming against the stream at times, as any good political act demands. But, teens can learn to make a decision about where they stand and then, follow that up with action.
Getting Better At Seeing Options Is A Creative And Social Process
Decisions don’t always appear like decisions to teens–they often seem like “the only choice,” but rarely is this so. As I see it, the biggest issue with teens becoming decision makers is getting better at seeing options they didn’t see before. This is an essential (and essentially) creative process that involves the work of seeing possibilities. There are creative skills we learn to help us look at things in new ways.
This is also an experience that benefits greatly from socializing a decision. Successful decision makers of all ages often seek input from others. Parents often say to me about their teen kids, “I just wish she could have asked me or could have let me help.” At times, as a therapist who works with teens, I feel the same way. There is a desire in adolescence for independence. We get that. But, being independent and being a solo decision maker are two different things. Being independent doesn’t mean going it alone.
So How Can Parents And Other Adults Support A Teen To Be A Decision Maker?
Here’s the trick–supporting a teen to be a decision maker is a task that looks quite different from supporting them to make (what you feel) is “the right” decision. Parents and therapists of teens, who want to develop as decision makers, need to ask these sorts of questions:
“What would it look like if you didn’t do it that way?”
“What’s important to you about each option? How does this fit with the sort of person you want to be?”
“Who would be hurt by making this decision versus that? Can you live with that?”
“Are there options you’re not seeing? Let’s look at this and see what may be missing from the analysis.”
This is scary for parents. Some decisions come with really scary consequences that as adults, we can see coming better than our teens. And to be clear, sometimes the job of a parent is to step in and overrule a decision. These instances, however, should be rare.