Helping Kids Learn to Make Good Decisions

Ever looked at your child in bewilderment and asked: “What were you thinking?!” Then you know that kids, especially teens, can make some profoundly poor decisions. Luckily, we can help them learn smart decision-making skills and manage mistakes—without helicoptering their every move.

Blame biology. “Understand that your kids aren’t just being stupid and emotional about things. The adolescent brain is very uneven. Some parts of the brain are very adult in their structure and function while other parts are very immature,” says pediatric psychologist Stephen Lassen, Ph.D.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which handles decision-making, isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25. Given the number of decisions kids must make as they move into early adulthood—college, career, relationships—this “makes for a challenging environment for parents,” Lassen says.

While we can’t manipulate biology, we can take steps to nurture thoughtful, independent decision-making.

Give choices from an early age. Prime the decision-making pump beginning in toddlerhood. Offer your child simple choices that you can live with like, “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the yellow shirt?” “Would you like to take a bath before or after dinner?”

“Giving options like that not only helps them start to think through decisions, make decisions, and accept consequences of those decisions, but it also sends the message that kids can do it, which tends to build self-confidence,” Lassen says.  

Offer age-appropriate decisions. You know best what decisions your child is ready for based on past history, development, and personality. In general, experts say that teens are ready to choose their own friends, their after-school activities, clothing and hairstyles, and the type of summer job they’d like to get.

“Those are totally appropriate decisions for teens to make that don’t have an impact on their safety or potential for a significant long-term consequences,” says pediatric psychologist Christina Low Kapalu, Ph.D. “When decisions do involve their safety or potential for significant long-term consequences, that’s when we want to involve parents’ input.”

Low Kapalu also recommends involving teens in their healthcare decision-making. They should be part of the conversation with their healthcare providers, like participating with you in scheduling their appointments and asking questions about treatment options and side effects.

“If they can’t do that by the time they’re 18, they’re going to really struggle to access medical care,” Low Kapalu says.  

Create a supportive framework. Think of how scaffolding supports buildings that are under construction. As the building becomes more secure and able to stand on its own, we remove pieces of the scaffolding.

In the same vein, “scaffolding is gradually removed as kids demonstrate mastery of different skills and the decision-making process,” Lassen says. “We’re not directly making all of the decisions for them, but the scaffolding—the structure—is around them to help them grow into this skill of making decisions in a safe, monitored way.”

Establish ground rules. With each new freedom, clearly explain your expectations with the understanding that privileges can be pulled back again.

“It’s a process. The research really shows that authoritative parenting style, which is just setting limits and enforcing clear limits with lots of warmth and engagement serves us well in the teenage years,” says therapist Julie Gettings, MSW-LSCSW. “If they make a poor decision or if we’ve given them too much freedom, then sometimes we have to pull the rope back a little bit.”

Offer permission with parameters. “Kids will come to us with a request, and we immediately want to say, ‘no, you can’t do that.’ But take a step back, pause, and think about ‘what can I be okay with within that request?’” Gettings advises.

For example, maybe your 14-year-old wants to go to the mall with friends. Instead of dismissing the idea, determine who they plan to go with and which adults will handle pick up and drop off. Set expectations like, “I expect you to answer your phone when I call you while you’re there.” Or, “I expect you to check in with me periodically while you are there.”

And, reinforce the positive by consistently praising the wise choices your child makes. 

Build confidence. For kids who experience anxiety around decision-making, give them multiple opportunities to make small decisions and praise them for simply making a choice even if you aren’t a fan of the decision. Avoid causing them to second-guess by saying things like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” which can further breed uncertainty.

“The more decisions you make, the more comfortable you are with things maybe not working out perfectly, maybe even failing,” Lassen says. “But life goes on, and as kids repeat that, they come to see that making a bad decision is not the end of the world. And in fact, it can really teach us a lot.”

Wait to be needed. Resist swooping in and rescuing your child from the consequences of their poor decision. For example, if they forgot their science homework, they’ll have to face the consequence.

“Rushing in too quickly sends the message to kids that they can’t do it, and it tends to push kids away from parents. It promotes dependence, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to as parents,” Lassen says. “We want our kids to be happy and do well, but so much of being a healthy, well-functioning adult is learning from difficult experiences where decisions didn’t go well.”

Reflect on decisions. We all make decisions that we later regret. “Stress to your child that you love them even if you don’t like their decision,” Low Kapalu says.

Rather than harshly interrogating or criticizing your child, facilitate a thoughtful, logical discussion which will help them feel safe coming to you when they make mistakes.

“Unfortunately, we can’t always see our blind spots and teens are no different,” Low Kapalu says. “They may not be aware of their inability to see the long-term consequences or be able to identify all of the possible outcomes because they don’t have the life experience that their parents do.”

Decision Reflections
• What are/were my options?
• What are/were the pros and cons?
• Do/did I need additional information?
• Which option did I choose? Why?
• Given another chance, would I choose differently?