Posted by: counselorcarmella | December 31, 2014

Teens, Parents, and Decision Making

Knowing how much freedom and trust to give young teens is difficult. Every child is different. Parents and other adults must make a child’s long-term health, safety, and brain development top priorities. We have to relate to them with the “big picture” in mind. The general goal is for kids to become responsible adults capable of making good decisions out of a solid sense of integrity and clarity about who they are and what their values are. We want them to learn to think for themselves but we also know they need guidance, support, and limits. Sometimes, adults have to be very proactive in stopping behaviors that are likely to be harmful in the short or long term. This is difficult but necessary.

The brains of young teenagers are still developing, especially the parts involved in decision making, realistically considering possible consequences of actions, delaying gratification, and thinking beyond right now. Teens don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from. They tend to think they will be the exception when they hear stories about the bad things that have happened to other people who made similar choices. They are trusting and easily influenced by peers who’s approval is harder to earn and keep than the unconditional love of parents. Plus, they want to prove that they are mature enough to have certain responsibilities and freedoms and are challenging rules as a way of trying to form their own identity and values systems.

These things can be both good and bad. They are normal and just like babies fall sometimes when learning to walk, most teens are going to make the “wrong” decisions at times. I often tell teenagers and their parents to treat the teen brain like that friend that you aren’t always sure you can trust to have your best interests in mind. Their brains want them to think they’re smarter, better judges of character, and more independent than is actually true. Even mature teenagers still have brains that are still in the process of forming and strengthening vital connections between parts so even the smartest kids are not operating with adult abilities to think, make decisions, and look at things from all sides. Lack of life experience makes them even more vulnerable to poor choices, trusting the wrong people, and not appreciating important information about things they may be doing, or thinking about doing. This is why teens don’t just get to decide to drop out of school, drive, or live on their own before certain ages. Kids need responsible adults to provide appropriate supervision and guidance. We don’t leave little kids alone with matches or let them stick metal objects into electrical outlets or to make all their own decisions about what they eat and we have to be involved with teens as they make decisions, too.

Some choices are more dangerous than others, obviously. Many choices involve their own natural consequences . This could be something like staying up too late and being tired the next day, wasting time and not studying enough for a test and making a poor grade, lying about where they are and getting caught, or spending money they’ve saved and then not having it for something they really want. These are all fairly minor “live and learn” opportunities that can be used to teach important lessons without major consequences. Sometimes, the natural consequence of an action is enough in and of itself. “You talked about your best friend to try and impress another girl and now your best friend doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want to talk with you” is a built in consequence.

Other times, choices made could involve situations that are harmful or that could have serious legal or health consequences. Not wearing a seatbelt, texting while driving, sharing too much information on social media, shoplifting, plagiarizing a paper, or experimenting with substance use or risky sexual behaviors could all be examples.

We have to crawl before we walk. Teens need opportunities to make small decisions with more minor consequences first. Once they’ve shown that they can handle those well, then they can gradually be given more responsibility and more chances to make choices that are a bigger deal. Many parents start by giving too much freedom then realize it was more than their teen could handle responsibly and have to take steps backwards. I tell teens and parents it is unfair for us to give them too much freedom because we could be expecting them to show restraint and maturity at levels they just aren’t capable of yet. This isn’t fair of the adults in their lives. We want to set them up for success not failure.

Remember that parents can be held legally responsible for a teen’s mistakes, too. You also can’t afford to lose sleep at night, be worried all the time, or take time off work to go get them from school or go to appointments with lawyers or doctors. What they do impacts you because you love them but it can also impact your relationship with your spouse and other children, your work performance, your finances, and your own physical or emotional health.

Lecturing doesn’t work well with teens or adults. Yelling is pointless. Brief and clear statements are best. Relationships that involve conversations about what peers are doing, situations in movies or on TV, or true stories in the news can all provide opportunities to talk about important choices and values. Parents can encourage teens to share their thoughts, to participate in conversations about rules around social media, curfews, where they can go and with whom, what is appropriate to wear, and other topics. Hearing kids out makes them think and present reasons and opinions, which helps them feel that what they want is being taken into consideration and also helps strengthen the parts of the brain that do these things. “No, because I said so” doesn’t work as well with teenagers, although there are times when that has to be the case. Having a conversation where both sides share their perspectives and suggest options or alternatives is best whenever possible.

Asking questions, and even saying, “I need to think about this” is okay and important. Think, do some research, talk to other parents. Don’t feel like you have to give an immediate answer. If your teen won’t back off on something when you’ve asked for time, the answer can be “No.” If there might be a way to help the child have some part of what they want, or what matters most to them in the situation, its always helpful to try and find it. Knowing why certain things are important to them helps with this. We know by asking questions not by assuming. A parent could say, “I’m not comfortable with you going to your friend’s house because the only adult home will be her older brother, but she can come over here or we could take y’all to the mall and let you hang out for a couple hours while we wait at the food court.” Then, parents can feel that they’re trying to be flexible and show willingness to brainstorm ways to help their child get at least some of what he or she wants. Kids may still get angry and refuse alternatives and say “You never listen!” but they were given a chance to have input about what they’re doing for fun, chores, and even appropriate punishments.

Think ahead about what you will do if problems come up about staying with friends, driving, social media, clothing choices, etc. Don’t ever assume your kid would “never do” what other kids are doing. The more prepared you are, the better. Punishment should be about ensuring safety (which is never possible if a teen has a pattern of lying) and about chances to learn from mistakes. Every action has a consequence. Adults deal with the same reality.

I think having teens write a report about what they did can be a good idea. I got this idea from a parent. Give them a list of questions you want answered and ask them to provide links to the websites they used. For example, if your child gets a speeding ticket questions might be, “What is the speeding limit where you were? Why are there laws about speeding? How many teens get in accidents each year because of speeding? What are the consequences financially and otherwise for speeding? What can people do to make sure they don’t speed and that they are driving safely? What will you do differently in the future (leave earlier, pay more attention while driving, etc) to make sure this doesn’t happen? What will you do if you lose your license or we take the car because you got another ticket? How will you get to work or school? How will you pay for the ticket or the higher insurance?” You might also have your teen do some type of volunteer work or extra chores or write a letter to someone else involved (the teacher they were rude to, the cop who pulled them over, the friend’s parent they lied to, etc,) as well as to you, apologizing for what they did.

Be sympathetic to your child’s frustration, disappointment, or embarrassment, but stay focussed on what will be best for them long-term. Habits we form when we’re young follow us into adulthood. If they start lying, engaging in risky or questionable behaviors, or being lazy now, they’ll keep doing those things more and more. You want your child to ultimately be a healthy and happy adult with as little baggage as possible. If you feel you were too hard or too easy about something in the past, say so. Apologize if you need to and let them know this is a learning process for you, too.

Phones, cars, and computers are privledges, not necessities. You can’t be afraid for your child or teen to be upset or angry with you. The relationship is important, but first and foremost, you have to be a parent and adult and do what is in their best interests in terms of safety and long-term consequences. Like it or not, your child needs to know you will always do what you feel is necessary and reasonable to protect them from themselves and from other people. You will do the same for any of their friends who may be making risky choices by letting the adults in their lives know what’s going on, too. You would want other adults to let you know if they had concerns about your child.

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