Helping Adolescents Make Better Choices: 20 Tips for Parents

Throughout adolescence, your teenager will be confronted with many difficult circumstances where choosing to make a safe and healthy choice may not be the easiest or most obvious thing to do. Peer-pressure may factor heavily into the choice-making process regarding numerous serious issues (e.g., drinking alcohol at parties, trying drugs, having sex, joining gangs, etc.).

It’s normal for adolescents to challenge their moms and dads' values and beliefs as a way to “test the system” and seek autonomy. Adolescents need support and “guidance” from their moms and dads to make important choices about their future. However, the more “controlling” you are, the more rebellious your adolescent is likely to become.

As a mother or father, being present to protect your adolescent from circumstances that could potentially hurt him will always be an intense urge that often can’t be realistically fulfilled. As your teenager grows older, parenting becomes less about control and more about offering guidance. You can help support your adolescent in making responsible choices by providing a solid foundation built upon sharing your time, experience, values and trust.

How to help your teenage son or daughter make better choices:

1. Adolescents sometimes believe they don't have any choice in the outcome of difficult circumstances. Help your adolescent to see alternatives that may be smarter, more responsible options.

2. Allow your adolescent to describe the problem or situation in his own words.

3. Allow your adolescent to live and learn from mistakes.

4. Allow your adolescent to make a choice and carry it out, and ask if he has a plan. Remember, your adolescent may make different choices than you would prefer. Then later, ask him how things worked out. What did he learn from the choice he made?

5. Allow your teen to voice her personal opinions.

6. Ask questions that avoid "yes" or "no" responses. These questions usually begin with "how," "why," or "what."

7. Ask your teen how she “feels” about the problem.

8. Be open and understanding whenever your adolescent needs to talk.

9. Be supportive, especially when your teen makes mistakes.

10. Define what constitutes a safe or smart choice. Help your adolescent understand that her health is often the most important factor involved in choice-making.

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11. Give your teen unconditional love – and show it.

12. Help your adolescent to identify and compare the possible consequences of all of the available choices. Explain (without lecturing) the consequences of different choices. How will the results affect your adolescent's goals (e.g., how would smoking affect playing on the soccer team?).

13. Help your teen set realistic goals, and show faith in his ability to reach those goals.

14. Involve your teen in choices that affect the entire family.

15. Praise your adolescent when she makes a good choice.

16. Really listen to what your adolescent is saying instead of thinking about your responses.

17. Remember that adolescents with high self-esteem and self-respect are more likely to make responsible choices.

18. Talk with your adolescent about ways to handle risky circumstances (e.g., peer pressure to drink, smoke, have sex, or get in a fight, etc.) to prepare her to make safer choices. To feel comfortable talking openly with you, your adolescent needs to know that you will not punish her for being honest.

19. Try to put yourself in your adolescent's shoes to understand his thoughts and feelings.

20. Whenever your adolescent comes to talk to you regarding a choice she is currently facing, make the most out of the opportunity. Your approach to any discussion has a real impact on whether or not your adolescent feels comfortable coming to talk to you in the future. Convey to your adolescent that you want to help, but won't try to control the situation by taking the choice out of her hands or making the choice for her. 

Choice-making grows stronger each time a teenager has to figure out a tricky situation on his own – making a poor choice, facing the consequences for the poor choice, and then reliving a similar situation again with a new set of choices gathered from the first unsuccessful experience. For some teens, it may take several of these unsuccessful experiences before they figure out the successful framework to make different and more positive choices to arrive at a more fulfilling conclusion that propels them in the right direction.

These situations crop up every day (e.g., at school, at recess, at lunch, on the bus, in extracurricular activities, in email and other forms of electronic media, etc.). There is no way for parents to be present in each and every one of these settings -- and they should NOT be there for every interaction, because if they were, their teens would never have the room to gain those experiences they need for healthy development.

Moms and dads need to allow their teens to "practice, practice, practice" in order to learn, and they need to avoid the temptation to come to their rescue each time they make a mstake. Practice letting go, stepping back, and being present only when you need to be.


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