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Helping Teens Make Their Own Decisions

Recently, I was talking with a 10th grader about an academic concern. We chatted for a while, and I offered her a couple of ideas as solutions to her problem. Then I said, “What do you think?” Her answer was, “I’ll ask my mother what I think.” This made me concerned about her future. In the next few years, she will be selecting a college to attend and leaving home to be on her own. She needs to be making some important decisions now. It is likely she will make some mistakes, but the adults in her life can help her when needed. She will have practiced the decision-making process with help from parents. When she is living on her own, she will more likely make thoughtful decisions.

If your teen is not used to making decisions on her own, you can help her learn how. A popular decision-making strategy uses risk-benefit analysis. Here are the steps:
  

  • Clearly identify the problem to be solved. This seems obvious, but often kids try to solve the wrong problem. For example, I have heard students say, “My teacher doesn’t like me.” After carefully talking through the reasons why they feel this way, it often becomes clear that the issue is that the student is socializing with friends during class and is frequently asked to pay attention. The real problem has nothing to do with the teacher.
  • The next step is to come up with more than one possible solution. Perhaps the student needs to move to a different seat. Another possibility is to discuss the problem with the friends she is socializing with and ask them to stop talking to her in class.
  • Each possible solution should be analyzed. Identify the positives and negatives for each solution. If she starts sitting in another seat, she may not be tempted to talk with friends, but she might feel isolated. If she discusses the problem with her friends, they might not actually quit talking to her in class. On the other hand, they might respect her more for trying to do better in her class.
  • Finally, she can make the best decision. She may decide to stay near her friends and ask them to help her by not talking in class. She might think that she can always change her seat later if this doesn’t work.


This risk-benefit strategy can be used for almost any serious decision. If deciding which colleges to apply to, the list of positives and negatives for each school will likely be pretty long. It is important that parents allow their children to make big decisions on their own. It is fine to offer options and to participate in the process, but your children will be better off in the long run if they learn how to make important decisions by themselves. Of course, some decisions still need to be made by parents; but look for opportunities to involve your children in the process as much as possible.

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