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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.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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.

Turning Disputes Into Teachable Moments

When moms and dads avoid disputes and disagreements at all cost with their adolescent (i.e., they do anything and everything to keep the peace), they are ignoring some of the greatest teaching moments they will ever have. Disagreement in and of itself is not what produces change for the better – it is how we, as parents, respond to it. Disagreement can be a force for good in families, but only if it is dealt with properly. The way we react can either deepen the relationship with our teens – or it can tear it down.

Most children simply want to know that they are being heard! Refusing to understand this principle and shutting-down any form of disagreement or conflict can build a wall between the two of you. Also, walls can build-up when you belittle your adolescent’s thoughts and feelings. The issue may seem like a small or “black and white” deal to you, but it could be confusing and all-encompassing to them. You can say something like, “I think I understand what you are saying, but let me try to repeat it so I’m sure.” Then, calmly repeat back what their issue and position is.

You can’t expect your adolescent to respect you - or your rules - if you don’t show respect to them. It’s important to acknowledge your adolescent’s viewpoint even if you don’t agree with it. Their view may be short-sighted, self-focused, and just plain irrational – but it is still one that they are going to want to defend to the end. Your response to their “point of view” needs to be respectful rather than reactionary or judgmental. Even so, if their position conflicts with your house-rules – and it’s an important matter of character or morality – you can say something like, “I understand now, but I don’t agree with your viewpoint, so we’re not going to follow that path. But let’s keep talking about it so I can better understand why you feel this way.”

Change comes out of relationship. Failing to listen during disagreements with your teen makes it difficult – if not impossible – for positive change to occur. Work to keep the lines of communication open, and make sure the relationship stays intact. If there is a smaller issue where you can give-in without compromising something very important, do it (just so they know you are listening). You don’t want your son or daughter to feel that you’re constantly turning a deaf ear to their way of thinking. They need to know that their concerns are being heard, and if there is NO hope of that, they will either become deceitful and just stop talking, or try other tactics (e.g., raging, acting-out their anger, ignoring you, etc.).

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

How to Handle Disputes and Disagreements—

1. All of the positives associated with having a dispute break down when disrespect creeps in from either party. Name calling, screaming, slamming doors, etc., are all acts that your youngster – and you – should avoid. When these things happen, the discussion needs to be put on hold until cooler heads prevail. That way, adolescents know they won’t get their way just by being angry or disrespectful. In fact, they end up shooting themselves in the foot because they lose the chance to make their case (at least until they can calm down). But be sure to come back to it and discuss it later that day. Don’t let disagreements fester too long, or they will eventually explode.

2. Deal with disagreements WHEN they happen – not after resentment has set-in. A problem that you overlook doesn’t just go away; instead, it becomes a building block in a wall that can grow and prevent both you and your youngster from properly responding to future disagreements. Each one that you address and resolve provides training for future “difference of opinion.”

3. Disagreement gives you a chance to get to know your youngster better. Sometimes during a dispute, children are more willing to open-up and express themselves. Be sure you don’t close the door during the conversation (even if it is heated) and allow them to say how they are feeling. They may blurt-out things they don’t really mean, or that could snap at you, so don’t take offense. We’ve all said things we wish we could take back. Adolescents do this more often because they haven’t learned how to manage their emotions. So try to understand the meaning behind the words, and give an element of grace to the actual words that are being said.

4. Having disagreements is great preparation for your adolescent in dealing with future conflict. The skills for dealing with disagreement that your adolescent learns from you will be needed throughout his/her life. The adult world is going to require them to resolve issues and disagreements with others, so you need to be sure you are giving them the tools they will need. And one day, they will have children too, so you can show them the way to the positive resolution of a disagreement.

5. Disagreement may show you a place where you are wrong. It’s a huge relationship builder to admit a mistake and to tell you teens that you are changing your position because of what they said. This will show them you value them as independent people. If you’re wrong, own up to it. If you’re right, don’t cave-in just to keep the peace and avoid an argument.

6. Disagreement presents a wonderful opportunity to reinforce your values and beliefs. All the things you have been teaching your teens before are brought into focus through applying your values to real-life situations. They may not agree with it, but they can at least begin to think about it.

7. Don’t let conflict spill-over and contaminate the rest of the relationship. It’s easy for the disagreement to take over every conversation. Be willing to press the pause button – not to overlook or ignore the problem, but to have time to take a break and re-establish connections over a meal or shared moments that have nothing to do with the dispute in question.

8. The relationship that you have been building with your youngster will bear fruit over time as long as you protect it. The dispute the two of you are having WILL challenge you, but you need to approach it as an “opportunity” rather than as a sign of “disrespect” or “defiance”. Don’t allow it to create a permanent crack in your relationship.

9. The symptoms of disagreement are not the problem …so you can’t resolve the problem by dealing with the symptoms. Keep the lines of communication open and the relationship strong, and you’ll successfully resolve any disputes that arise in the family.

10. Lastly, have plenty of patience as your teenager learns “the fine art of logical debate.”


 

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

How to Keep Teens from Dropping-Out of High School

Teen: “School sucks. I’m not going anymore!”
Mother: “What!?” 
Teen: “I hate school …I quit!!”
Mother: “You can’t just quit, Michael!!” 
Teen: “Why not? People quit and get a GED all the time!!!”
Mother: “You have to finish high school. You don’t want to work at McDonald’s the rest of your life.”
Teen: “Whatever… I'm quitting, and you can't stop me.”

Whether your adolescent is being bullied at school or is struggling with classes, dropping-out of school should never be an option. Statistically speaking, high school drop-outs earn approximately $260,000 less than those who have their diploma and cost the U.S. over $319 billion in lost wages over the course of the drop-out’s lifetime. High school drop-outs often struggle to find happiness because, in most cases, career choices are relegated to low-income jobs with no advancement. The best way to keep an adolescent in school is through support, motivation and letting him/her see firsthand what would happen if he/she decided to quit.

Here are some important tips to keep your teenager in school until graduation:

1. Are serious problems occurring in the home (e.g., abuse, financial distress, grief, illness, etc.)? If so, these issues will need to be addressed first.

2. Ask each teacher to provide a customized solution as to how he/she can help your teenager in the classroom.

3. Be present in your adolescent’s life. Supporting and celebrating victories is important to keeping a teen in school. The at-risk adolescent needs a cheerleader to promote and raise him/her up when he/she does well. Also, you need to be able to help pick your adolescent up and find solutions when failure occurs in order to teach resiliency and tenacity. A consistent, loving role model who lets the adolescent know that he/she isn’t in this alone will help the student find the courage to continue with his/her education.

4. Bright and gifted adolescents sometimes advance beyond the level of their classes in some or all areas. Depending on talents and personality, they may also learn better in less structured environments. Sometimes the best solution for this is to find a college with an early entrance program and let the adolescent complete high school concurrent with freshman year. Switching to college is not dropping out!

5. Bullying is a serious epidemic that can destroy an adolescent’s life. Bullying is not limited to physical assault on or off school grounds, but can also be through gossip and slander in social media channels. Investigate to make sure your teenager is not being bullied (in silence).

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

6. Consider your adolescent's support structure. Is there a stable grown-up who supports your adolescent? Does your adolescent come from a family that values education - or has a mom or dad somehow diminished the value of having a high school diploma? Sometimes there is a cultural issue where there is a fear that an adolescent that is educated beyond the abilities of other family members will stop identifying with their cultural roots. This type of pressure can be very intense. In the United States, your adolescent is under the age of 18, the mom and dad must sign the teen out of school and agree to allow him/her to drop-out. Your adolescent’s support system has a considerable influence on whether he/she finally drops out or not.

7. Consult with a professional. Before you can create a strategic plan, you have to dig deeper into why your adolescent wants to drop-out. Meet with the guidance counselor at the school to pinpoint the reason and then investigate what has been done to remedy the situation. For example, if your adolescent has been struggling with academics, determine if he/she has been tested for a learning disability or ADHD. Explore tutoring options. Often a student who struggles in class responds very well to one-on-one learning. If the guidance counselor provides little or no assistance, consult with a child psychologist to have your adolescent evaluated.

8. Design a collaborative mission, including short and long term goals to engage your teen and help him/her progress.

9. Find good sources of relaxation for your adolescent. While it's important for him/her to do well in school, it's also important for you to provide a little relaxation time for your adolescent so he/she doesn't get overwhelmed.

10. Identify why your adolescent wants to drop-out of school. For an adolescent to want to drop-out of school, the reason(s) have to be pretty serious. If you can first get to the root of the problem, you can start to cultivate a solution that may work to help keep him/her in school.

11. If teenagers need to drop-out because of a severe unsolvable issue like bullying, teenage pregnancy, or a serious medical condition, they should be encouraged to get a GED. Adolescents can still go to college and get a career with a GED certificate if regular high school will not work. Education and a teen’s well-being should come first rather than where they studied.

12. If your adolescent is extremely unhappy, consider transferring him/her to a new school or providing alternate schooling options. As a mother or father, you can effectively counter your adolescent dropping out by providing alternative schooling, community collaboration, or career education.

13. Invite your child to take part in the strategic plan and provide feedback about what might be helpful to him/her in the classroom.

14. Is the adolescent constantly in trouble with school officials and/or law enforcement? Students who are often in trouble may be hiding a deeper reason why they are acting-out.

15. Is your adolescent constantly struggling to keep up with the rest of the class and often receives poor or failing grades? Has any type of intervention been performed, or has the student fallen through the cracks? Parents may need to get their child on an IEP if there have been no previous interventions.

16. Making educators aware that your adolescent is at risk will provide them with information to offer more support in the classroom.

17. Meet with administrators to develop a strategic plan. Once you’ve determined the reason and have researched previous efforts (if any) to help, meet with the adolescent’s team of educators to obtain feedback and create a plan. Don't put the blame on the school or the educators. Keep it positive. Everyone needs to feel like they are on the same side.

18. Set up a schedule to meet with educators and your teen on a regular basis (weekly, monthly or quarterly depending on the progress).

19. Several common reasons an adolescent could drop-out range from school insecurity, not keeping tabs on school work, family turmoil or drug problems. So, research, research, research! Find out what’s going on behind the curtain.

20. Unfortunately, many adolescent girls drop-out of school in order to care for their newborn or young child. In this case, parents should do some research on what services are available in the community for the teen mothers.


 

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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