Even the most well-adjusted teenagers struggle with making good choices at times. This is partially due to the fact that they are still developing mentally, physically and emotionally. It is well documented in scientific research that the frontal lobes of teenage brains are not fully connected, which can result in inefficient communication from one part of brain to the other.
In addition to a developing brain, teenagers often struggle with making good decisions because they are highly responsive to their environment. This sensitivity is great when your child is learning a new skill, but detrimental when he or she is using drugs or alcohol. For example, research has shown that when a teenager smokes pot, the cognitive effects last much longer than an adult — who returns to their cognitive baseline much quicker.
Teens also tend to believe they are invincible and that right now is all that matters. It is difficult for them to see the potential consequences of their actions down the road. That fearlessness, when not harnessed can turn into foolishness. Learn more about inciting reasonable fear in your teen here.
When you take those factors and add in a psychological or emotional challenge or disorder, making good decisions can be especially tricky for your teen. It’s important to note that if your teenager is dealing with one of these special challenges, guidance from trained experts through therapy or a treatment program may be necessary.
Here are a few tips for teaching your teen about the importance of making good choices.
1. Pick and choose when to flex your influence muscle.
When you are trying to talk to your teen about the importance of making good choices, it’s wise to pick your battles. Voicing your opinion about matters of personal preference will cause your counsel to fall on deaf ears when it comes to the truly BIG stuff. Save your heart-to-heart chats for choices that truly will affect their long-term goals and happiness. While your son’s wardrobe or hairstyle might drive you crazy, it might be wise to keep your focus more of helping them graduate high school or learning how to cope with depression/anxiety.
2. Dig deeper to listen without judgment.
If your son is struggling in math class, instead of immediately launching into a lecture about how if he doesn’t pass the class he won’t graduate high school or amount to anything, ask him more about the class. Ask him if he likes the teacher and if he feels like he understands the assignments. Ask him about the other kids in the class. There is a possibility that the issue isn’t math at all, it could be a social problem that happens to occur during math class. Ask him about how struggling with the class makes him feel.
While it is very likely that your teen will be evasive and say everything is fine, you might be surprised to see your teen open up. Maybe the class gives him anxiety because he has already missed so many assignments and he doesn’t feel like he can catch up. When asking these questions, give your teen plenty of time to express their feelings and truly listen without giving an immediate response or suggestion.
3. Help your teen identify possible outcomes of their choices.
After you have given your teen a feeling of being loved and listened to, try to explain while this particular situation might not seem like a big deal right now, that it has potential to have a bigger impact in the long-term.
One non-threatening way is to to make a list together of the possible outcomes of the different choices they can make. For example, if your son is struggling in math class, explore what will happen if he doesn’t go back and finish his missed assignments. The result might be that even if he turns in the upcoming assignments, he might still get a bad grade. Exploring the possible natural consequences can motivate your teen.
Then explore what will happen if he works with the teacher and a tutor to catch up. The result will be that he will understand upcoming assignments better and improve his grade significantly. Spelling it out will help your teen see it in a more linear fashion and hopefully make a more positive choice. Help them feel empowered, not trapped!
If all else fails, seek professional help. Parenting doesn’t have to be done alone!