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Why Teens Make Poor Decisions and How Parents Can Help

Teenagers smoke, take drugs, have unprotected sex and ride with drunk drivers, not because they think they are invulnerable or haven't thought about the risks. In fact, they are more likely to ponder the risks, take longer weighing the pros and cons of engaging in high-risk behavior than grown-ups, and actually overestimate the risks. It's just that they often decide the benefits (e.g., the immediate gratification, peer acceptance, etc.) outweigh the risks.

While grown-ups scarcely think about engaging in many high-risk behaviors because they intuitively grasp the risks, teenagers take the time to mull-over the risks and benefits. In other words, more experienced decision-makers tend to rely more on fuzzy reasoning, processing situations and problems as a “general idea” rather than weighing multiple factors. On the other hand, emergency room doctors (for example) make better decisions by processing less information and making sharper black-and-white distinctions among decision-making options. This leads to better decisions, not only in everyday life, but also in places like emergency rooms where the speed and quality of risky decisions are critical.

Interventions that use risk data regarding smoking or unprotected sex, for example, may actually backfire if teens overestimate their risks anyway. Instead, interventions should help them develop "general-idea-based" thinking in which dangerous risks are categorically avoided rather than weighed in a rational, deliberative way.

Decision-making is the process of choosing what to do by considering the possible consequences of different choices. Reasoning skills are utilized in the decision-making process and refer to specific cognitive abilities, some of which include assessing probability and thinking systematically or abstractly. The basic process that decision-makers use when confronted with a decision involves:
  • listing relevant choices
  • identifying potential consequences of each choice
  • assessing the likelihood of each consequence actually occurring
  • determining the importance of these consequences
  • combining this information to decide which choice is the most appealing

Many different factors influence how teens make decisions. These may include cognitive, psychological, social, cultural, and societal factors. Cognitive factors refer to the mental processes of reasoning and perception. These decision-making processes mature with age and experience and are influenced by a teen’s brain development and acquisition of knowledge. Social and psychological factors refer to those influences from within a teen’s family, peer group, or self (e.g., self-esteem, locus of control, etc.). Some cultural and societal factors which influence a teen’s decisions include religious beliefs, socioeconomic conditions, and ethnicity.

Teenagers face a number of challenges in making healthy decisions due to the following:
  • they may be influenced by their emotions and fail to use decision-making processes
  • they may favor their own experience over probabilistic evidence when determining the likelihood of the consequences of their actions
  • they may focus more on the social reactions of their friends when deciding to engage in or avoid risky behaviors
  • they may have a hard time interpreting the meaning or credibility of information when making decisions
  • they may lack the experience, knowledge or feeling of control over their lives to come up with alternative choices
  • they may misperceive certain behaviors as less risky
  • they may be overly optimistic about their ability to recognize and avoid threatening situations
  • they may not be able to accurately estimate the probability of negative consequences
  • they may see only either-or choices rather than a variety of options

The issue of decision-making becomes increasingly important during the teenage years because adolescents are developing greater autonomy and encountering more choices independent of adults. The choices adolescents make may drastically affect not only their own lives, but the lives of others as well. Some of these choices may include which career to pursue, whether or not to have sex or use contraceptives, whether or not to use alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs, or whether or not to engage in violent or risky behaviors. Concern about these "risk behaviors" has led to the development of prevention and intervention programs that strive to help adolescents better protect themselves with effective decision-making skills.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that youth development programs are successful in promoting positive behavior and preventing problem behavior when these programs help teenagers learn the following:
  • coping strategies
  • decision-making
  • problem solving
  • refusal strategies
  • resistance strategies
  • social and self-regulation skills

Programs that incorporate decision-making skills have been found to delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, and increase safer-sex behaviors. Research has also shown that teens armed with sound decision-making skills are better able to refuse alcohol and other drugs. Moreover, teens who perceive themselves as having better problem-solving skills are less likely to be depressed and have fewer suicidal thoughts.

Adolescents also need strong decision-making skills because the U.S. economy requires workers that are capable of thinking and making decisions at higher levels of sophistication than preceding generations. Furthermore, a successful democracy relies on citizens who can think critically about diverse issues and intelligently decide how society should address these issues.

Research has not yet answered how best to teach decision-making skills to teenagers, but some concrete methods include:
  • assisting them to recognize their own biases
  • encouraging them to search for new information when making decisions and helping them to avoid overestimating their knowledge and capabilities
  • having teens work in pairs or small groups on relevant decision problems
  • helping teens understand how their choices affect others
  • providing accurate information to teenagers about the actual number of other teens engaging in risky behaviors to counteract media messages
  • providing teens with opportunities to practice and rehearse decision-making skills
  • teaching them about how their emotions may influence their thinking and behavior
  • using a general heuristic framework to help teens learn how to think critically about decision problems
  • utilizing concrete situations and decision problems that reflect the teens’ interests and have relevance to their lives

When teenagers are unsure of themselves, they are more likely to give in to peer-pressure. When a teenager feels good about herself, it improves the odds that she will make good decisions. Moms and dads can build teenagers’ self-confidence by teaching them to think for themselves. Ask your teenager for her opinion, even about small issues. Urge her to make decisions. Praise her for positive choices, and let her know that you appreciate her – and her achievements. Expose her to activities, people, places, and ideas, because doing so will broaden her outlook and help to limit the influence of negative peers. The likely result is a teenager that doesn’t worry about what others say, thinks things through, and chooses wisely.

The teen needs to know her “self.” 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. Moms and dads can show the way to good conduct through example and by promoting values, explaining those values, 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.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents 


Comment: 


For the past two years our lives have been nonstop drama and this past Sunday I made him leave. I had a complete and total melt down and said things to him that I have never ever said to him and which I now deeply regret. I sent him two text messages with heartfelt apologies, but he did not respond. I took him a change of clothes yesterday and he looked very tired, but I did not stay and I did not try to get him to come home, because I just do not think I can stand to be lied to or treated so disrespectfully anymore. So now he is staying with his adult brother, who allows him to smoke pot and has encouraged my teen to quit school and come work with him at his automotive shop. This has been going on for months now and my son has quit school because of his older brothers influence and has even overdosed on something my adults son's wife gave my teen last August. I have tried to keep him away from my teen because he is a horrible role model and influence, but his shop is 4 blocks from our home and every time my teen and I have a disagreement, he runs to my adult son who confirms to him that I am a horrible mother. I raised both of them on my own, their fathers were pretty much no shows, and we had little family support, so I did the best I could. It just never seemed to be enough. 


 The oldest got in a lot of trouble when he was younger too, and after helping him get out of it all, I allowed him to live with me until he was 25 and he and my teen bonded very tightly, so breaking that bond is impossible, but I feel like the oldest is jealous of his baby brother and is deliberately giving him poor advice hoping he will fail and continuously undermines me as a parent and does things to deliberately sabotage any progress my teen and I might make ~ such as being the one to keep him out after curfew and then act like I am being ridiculous by telling him it is time for him to come home. My adult son is very passive aggressive and will smile in your face while stabbing you in the heart and pretend that he is doing you a favor. My mom and dad do not even have anything to do with him because he has dealt so deceitfully with them in the past. Right now my teen has two court dates, one for paraphernalia and another for forgery and submitting fraudulent documents to the court. And like I said, last Sunday night I made my teen leave after he broke curfew again and stayed out until 1 a.m. while being on probation. He had been sneaking out his bedroom window just three days prior to that and I had told him that if he broke the house rules again, that there would be dire consequences. But he does not care. He didn't even TRY to call me to tell me he would be late and refused to respond to my texts messages until I threatened to turn his "friend" in that helped him forge his community service records. We have to be in court on the 19th of June and I was going to ask the judge to put him in a treatment center for 30 days instead of Juvie or a fine. I have already written her a letter as such, but the courts tell me that they are a municipal court and do not really have that "kind" of jurisdiction. So I have nowhere to turn for help with him. 


We have been in counseling for months now with a family crisis counselor but she says that my son is master manipulator and she is wasting her time with him because he won’t "do the work" that’s required for us to resolve all his problems. So right now, he is truant, on probation, not at home but with an adult sibling that lives in the back of his automotive shop in an office cubicle, with the same woman that gave my teen drugs that he overdosed on. And I am lost as to knowing what to do. My teen seems so sweet and loving and polite to my face, but is very sneaky, deceitful and disrespectful behind my back, He has stolen from me, lied to my face and allowed kids to come in my home and use drugs and trash my home when I was gone. He did not even make them leave before I got home even though he knew I was on my way. When I had a meltdown after walking in to the damage, he responded that it was not "that bad" and that I "over reacted". His behavior reminds me of his father who is extremely bi-polar and most of this erratic behavior began after the overdose episode where he smoked something called "Purple Chronic". So I think he needs to be evaluated by someone, but he refuses to get treatment. So I am lost here and wonder if it might be too late for us.

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