But everybody’s doin' it: Talking to teens about decision making
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This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.
Teens make decisions based on two important questions:
- What do my friends think?
- Will it be fun?
Your teen’s idea of fun and his perceptions of the level of risk involved determine whether he will indulge in risky behaviors. These include drinking alcohol, doing drugs, or having unprotected sex.
For example, your teen is probably well aware that getting drunk carries many risks. But to a teenager, having fun and being with friends at the coolest party on Saturday night is more important than the risks.
Teenagers choose friends they respect, trust, and care for. They expect friends to care for them, too. Teens also choose their friends because of similar interests or to make themselves more popular.
Your child’s friends are going through the same kinds of things as your teen. They understand each other so they can talk about their problems and figure out ways to solve them together.
Teens do not drink or use drugs only because their friends do. Abusing alcohol or drugs is a sign of a problem more serious than peer pressure. There are ways parents can help prevent their teen from drinking alcohol or using drugs.
One way is monitoring behavior. Research has found that when parents monitor their teen’s behavior, the teen is less likely to indulge in problem behaviors. The teen is also more likely to choose friends who show behaviors that parents like.
Parents may think some teens’ decisions are irrational or stupid. But they don't think of it that way. Your teen might be considering different consequences than you would in the same situation. Or she might be considering different values or imagining different consequences.
Let’s look at the example of having unprotected sex. Here's how you and your teen might look at this differently.
- Your teen might identify different consequences of the behavior. You think having unprotected sex might lead to pregnancy or a disease. Your teen thinks not having sex might mean losing her boyfriend.
- Your teen may place a different value on potential consequences. Losing the boyfriend she is in love with seems like the worst thing in the world.
- Your teen may view the likelihood of a particular consequence differently. Teens often feel very strongly that “It won’t happen to me.”
At some point, every teenager will have to make decisions about alcohol, sex, and drugs. Talking with your teen lets her know how you feel about these issues. It also increases the likelihood that she will share your values. And it's a way to help her understand what the consequences of her actions are, and that these consequences are very real.
Listen to your teen. She has questions and concerns that are different from yours. Talking lets you discuss both of your concerns and helps prevent fighting.
- Discuss what makes a reasonable risk. You and your teen may have different ideas of what is reasonable. Talk about what might happen if your teen decides to have a beer at a party.
- Ask your teen to consider the potential benefits and consequences of this behavior. Role-play different possibilities recognizing kids’ and parents’ views. For example, you may see no benefits to teenage sex. But your daughter desperately wants her boyfriend to say he loves her.
- Keep in mind that risk taking can be a positive thing. Reasonable risk taking can give your teenager confidence in his abilities. It can teach him to trust his own judgment. And it can help him face failure and frustration.
You can teach your teenager to make good decisions on her own by giving her responsibility, information, and guidance. The first step is recognizing how people solve problems. You also need to remember that we all learn to solve problems better by making mistakes.
Here is one problem-solving process you might try:
- Identify the problem.
- Figure out the cause of the problem.
- Decide on your goal.
- Identify what resources you might use to reach your goal.
- Identify as many possible solutions as you can. List the pros and cons of each.
- Choose your best option and carry it out.
- Think about the outcome and revise your plan for the next time, if necessary.
For your teen, there's a trade-off between doing what he knows is right and being accepted by peers. Don't just think about the time your teen got drunk or dyed his hair blue. Think about the good things he's doing, and the bad things he's chosen not to do, too!
Brechwald, W. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Beyond homophily: A decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes.
Crockett, L. J., & Silbereisen, R. K. (Eds.). (2000). Negotiating adolescence in times of social change.
Steinberg, L. (2004). The 10 basic principles of good parenting.
Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence.
van Hoorn, J., van Dijk, E., Meuwese, R., Rieffe, C., & Crone, E. A. (2016). Peer influence on prosocial behavior in adolescence.
KidsHealth.org — Where to go for information you can trust about teens that's free of "doctor speak." In English and Spanish.
ParentFurther: A search institute resource for families — An online resource to help families strengthen relationships through shared activities.
BoysTown.org — Boys Town — Boys Town is home to parenting experts who have developed a wealth of free original content over the years.