Teaching Your Teen to Be a Proactive Decision-maker

by Carol James Copyright 1999-2012

Decisions, decisions, decisions. It seems that everywhere we turn there is another decision to make: What to eat, what to wear, what to do, how to do it, when to do it, whom to do it with, etc. Every day, there are dozens of decisions to make, starting from the moment we wake up and ending when we finally fall asleep at night. If you are alive and conscious, then every day, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year there are decisions to be made. In a single lifetime, a person will make zillions of choices.

Some decisions are made to pass judgment on an issue under consideration or on a persons behavior or actions. Other decisions are made to reach a conclusion or to make up ones mind about a choice. Decisions are made about who to believe, about what to believe, about what we feel is right or wrong, about what experiences we want to have, about options we want to explore and about ways we want to be.

In many ways, kids have the same types of decisions to make as their parents: Get out of the warm, cozy bed or sleep in a tiny bit? Take a long, hot shower or a quick one? Eat a bowl of cold cereal or fix some eggs for breakfast? Wear the blue outfit that brings out my eyes or the red one that gets me noticed? Should I do this or should I do that? Should I take his or her advice or ignore it? Should I do what s/he wants me to do or should do what I want?

Then there are decisions that tend to be unique to teenagers: Should I study for this test or hang out with my friends? Should I drink beer and be cool or drink soda pop and stay sober? Should I smoke cigarettes like my friends or focus on being healthy? Should I experiment with those drugs or keep my head clear? Should I go to that party or work on improving my grades? Should I have sex with that person or wait until I am ready? In the midst of struggling with these decisions, they are also trying to find themselves, to carve out their own identity and to find meaning and purpose in their own life.

It is natural for teenagers to want to make their own decisions. They want to be in charge of their own life, choosing what appeals to them. Often they will become resentful or rebellious when parents try to control them by forcing choices down their throat. They figure that it is their life to live and no one has the right to determine how they should live that life. And they are right. It is their life. They are the one who must live with the consequences of choices, so it only makes sense that they should be the one making those choices.

However, many parents are afraid of letting their teenagers make their own decisions. Why is that? Well, there are many reasons:

  • Some parents dont believe that their teenagers know how to make good decisions.
  • Some parents dont feel that their teenagers know whats best for themselves.
  • Some parents are afraid that their teenagers will choose something that is wrong or bad or that they disapprove of.
  • Some parents dont trust their teenagers.
  • Some parents want their teenagers to do what they wished they would have done when they were young.
  • Some parents have no confidence in their teenagers.
  • Some parents feel only they know what is best for their children
  • Some parents feel that they are protecting their children by making decisions for them
  • Some parents feel so out of control in their own lives, that they seek some semblance of control by controlling their childrens lives.

On the other side of the fence are teenagers who shriek in fear or discomfort when confronted with making a decision, because they have not been taught how to take responsibility for their own lives. They sigh in relief when another person makes the decision for them whether that is their parent, teacher or peer because it takes away the pressures inherent in making a decision. There are many reasons why people are afraid to make their own decisions:

  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Fear of the consequences
  • Thinking that others know what is better for them than they do
  • Thinking that others are better qualified to make decisions
  • Lacking confidence in their decision making ability
  • If someone else makes the decision and it doesnt work out, then they can shift the blame to the person who made the decision instead of blaming themselves
  • Not having the courage to take responsibility for their choices

If we dont teach teenagers how to make their own decisions and how to deal with the consequences of those decisions, then we do them a great disservice, because sooner or later they will leave the nest and be on their own. Teenagers ability to make good decisions is a key factor in growing up to be successful, healthy adults. If they have not gained confidence from making their own decisions, then life will be full of circumstances for which they are not adequately prepared to handle.

What about your teenagers? Have you taught them how to make good decisions? If some of their decisions do not pan out, do they know how to deal with the consequences in a mature, up-front manner? Have you encouraged your kids to make their own decisions so that they learn how to be responsible adults? Have you taught your teenagers to be accountable for their own actions?

Yes, its true that some decisions dont work out, some fall apart and some create a big mess, but within all decisions lies the potential for greater clarity, wisdom and understanding. Most of the decisions that dont work out stem from the fact that few people have been taught how to take a proactive approach to life instead of a reactive approach, while for others it is because the decision-making process was deferred to someone else. You can teach your teenagers that arriving at a decision need not be difficult or fraught with stress if they will take the time to ponder these questions before making a decision:

Define the Problem. What decision needs to be made? Write a brief description of the decision that you need to make.

Determine the Timing. Why must a decision be made right now? What is going on in your life that has forced the issue, causing you to feel compelled to make a decision right now?

Identify Consequences of Delay. What will happen if you delay making this decision? What are the consequences of delaying this decision? What or who will be affected if you dont make this decision now? If you cannot delay making a decision, then continue to the next question.

Define the Desired Outcome. What results do you want? There are several factors involved in making good decisions. The first involves getting clear about the desired outcome. What is it that you desire as a result of the decision? What outcome do you want or are you expecting?

Generate Options. What are your choices? List all the choices you can think of.

Brainstorm Solutions. Are those your only choices? Often, we only see the most obvious choices before us, then think that we must choose one of those options. If those options are not appealing or desirable, then we struggle making a choice. Consider this: If none of your options feels right, then perhaps there are other options that you just cant see yet. Maybe you are too close to the problem. Maybe you are too emotionally involved with the outcome. Maybe you dont have all the facts. Maybe you need another opinion. Brainstorming with others or getting others opinion may help you to see things from a different perspective. Take a step back, and see if you can think up more options.

Analyze the Options. What are the consequences of each option? Write a brief description of each option, then list its pros and cons. What will you gain as a result of choosing that option? What will you lose? How do you feel about whatever you may lose?

Define Consequences. How will each choice affect you? Are you willing to live with the results? Are you willing to pay the price for the choice you make? Eliminate all options that will cost you more than you are willing to lose. If the right choice is not yet obvious after weighing what you will gain and lose from each option, then take the analysis further.

Match to Desired Outcome. Which choice will give you the outcome described in item #4, Define the Desired Outcome? If you cant find an option that will give you the outcome you want, then you have two choices: Find another option or change the outcome you want. You may need to return to item #6 and search for more options or return to item # 4 and modify the outcome you want.

Choose an Option. Which option feels the best? Since you will never absolutely, without a doubt, know the outcome of making a decision before making the decision, it usually comes down to instinct. Which choice feels the best? Set aside your intellectual side for a moment and just feel the choices. Which does your gut instinct say to choose?

Justify the Option. Why does that choice feel the best? What is it about that decision that feels so good? Perhaps the only reason you have is that it just feels the best, and that is okay. But if you can see clear-cut reasons why, then list those.

Contingency Planning. If you implement your choice and it doesnt work out, then what? Often, people think that when they make a decision, they must live with the results for the rest of their life. The truth is that decisions are temporary stepping stones toward more decisions. Look at your decisions as temporary bridges to the next step in your life. If things dont work out as a result of your decision, think of the knowledge that you will have gained. Think of how that knowledge will help you to make better decisions in the future. Did you master riding a bicycle on your first attempt? Didnt you practice until the wobbling stopped and you rode like a pro? Decisions are the same. How many times do you think Thomas Edison made the wrong decisions in his experiments with electricity, then learning from his trial and error, finally invented the light bulb? And what about all the new discoveries he made along the way? Think beyond the present. Think of consequences that may happen and prepare for alternative actions. What is the worst that could go wrong and can you live with that scenario? If that did happen, then what would you do next? If you cant live with a potential outcome, then dont choose that option.

In the end, we each must learn to make our own decisions. While well-meaning parents want to protect their children from the mistakes they made, what they forget is that the wisdom they now have is a result of the decisions they have made in the past and what they have learned from those decisions. If they deprive their children of making their own decisions and learning from those decisions, then they deprive their children of learning how to:

  • Find their own way
  • Think for themselves and make their own choices
  • Discover what works best for them
  • Have confidence in their ability to make good decisions
  • Trust themselves
  • Take responsibility for their own lives
  • Depend on themselves to know what is best for them
  • Have courage
  • Be their own person

If your goal is to provide guidance for your teenager to help them become happy, successful adults, then helping them to make proactive, responsible decisions is a major step toward achieving that goal.

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