Build trust to support independence

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Adolescence marks the time when young people start making bigger, more significant decisions on their own. But how do we go about supporting our teens to make good decisions? Here is a look at how to support and encourage your child to make good decisions so they become confident, thriving teens.

The developing teen brain

During the teenage years, there is significant remodelling of the thinking and processing parts of the brain that continues until the early twenties. The prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain that is responsible for decision-making - is the last area of a teen’s brain to fully develop. Because of this, teenagers’ decision-making can occur via their amygdala - an area of the brain that is associated with emotions, instincts, aggression and impulses. The ongoing development in a teen’s brain means that they may lack the same decision-making capabilities as adults. They will often make decisions based on emotion and instincts as opposed to planned reactions or pre-thinking.

Knowing this about your child’s brain can make it easier to understand why they might seem to lack good decision-making skills. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t let our children make any decisions themselves, but it does mean that we need to help them learn how to make good decisions. Encouraging rational thinking, promoting good behaviour and making sure they get enough good sleep and living well can all help develop good decision-making skills.

Practical decision-making techniques

While you can’t always be there to help your child make every single decision in their lives, you can help by teaching them some practical decision-making skills that they can call on at any time. A good time to talk with your child about decision-making skills is when you know that they need to make a decision about something that doesn’t have to be made immediately. Some examples are:

  • deciding what subjects or sports to select at school

  • deciding what friends they want to see on the weekend

  • deciding how they will manage their money.

These kinds of decisions are good ones to practice decision-making skills that can then be applied to all sorts of situations. Sit down with your child and suggest they try some of the decision-making skills listed below and get them to evaluate which ones work for them.

Here are some strategies to help with good decision-making:

  • Take some deep breaths and stay calm.

  • Brainstorm the whole range of possibilities involved in the decision.

  • Write a list of the positive and negative consequences of a decision and weigh them up against each other

  • Identify the short and long-term consequences of a decision.

  • Get them to tune in to their instincts – remember what they do and don’t want.

  • If it’s a decision affecting someone else, get them to imagine themselves in the other person’s shoes.

You may only need to do one of these processes, or you may try all of them. Some teenagers may find writing things down helpful to the decision-making process, and others may find talking about the different aspects of a decision is what works for them. Tune into what works best for your child, and support the way that they tackle the decision – forcing them to do things in a particular way won’t help them develop their own independent abilities.

Ethics and boundaries

Decision-making often relies upon a bedrock of ethics and boundaries that need to be established within the family. Setting boundaries with your child is an important step to take so they can make decisions for themselves, while being aware of what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour. As your child confronts new issues of independence and decision-making, having family-wide discussions about expectations is important. Some things to consider:

  • Ensure that you’re leading by example and sticking to family rules yourself.

  • Set boundaries and rules in consultation with your teen and allow room for some negotiation.

  • Use positive reinforcement for good behaviour.

  • Identify and praise when your teen has made a good decision.

Risky Behaviour

Due to brain development during adolescence, teenagers can be prone to risky behaviour. Risky behaviour can be anything from not studying for exams to drinking, dangerous driving and drug taking. While it’s tempting to want to control your child to stop them from engaging in risky behaviour, an alternative technique is to support them in taking positive risks. Some ways to do this are:

  • encourage them to do scary yet safe things like public speaking or singing

  • encourage them to try new things, travel is a great way to do this

  • encourage them to tackle a sport that involves calculated risk.

Positive risk-taking means that teenagers can still satisfy their need to try out new things and push through fear barriers.

Letting your child make their own decisions

The best way for teenagers to learn how to make good decisions is to let them practice. While it can be difficult to let go (particularly when we know how their brain is still developing), we have to give them the space to try. Some ways to allow your child make their own decisions:

  • Be available to listen and be a sounding board if they are struggling with a decision. Learn more about effective communication.

  • Be empathetic and give them space to work it out themselves, even if you have a strong bias to a certain course of action.

  • Avoid being judgmental if a decision that they’ve made hasn’t worked out for the best – encourage them to use it as a learning experience by adopting a growth mindset.

  • Praise your teen for their efforts to make considered decisions. Learn about effective ways to give praise.

It’s important to keep in mind that good decision-making is a skill that young people need to learn, and that there will be some failures along the way.

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