Good Decision-Making Skills for Teens

As children age, their decision-making skills improve -- until the teen years, that is. When kids hit their teens, logical decision making seems to get thrown out the window. The cause for this is usually hormonal changes, which push teens toward making risky and impulsive decisions. Dr. Jodi Dworkin, professor of family social science, points out that teen decision making is actually a family affair; parents have the unique opportunity to sway teenagers away from risk and toward healthy decision-making skills.

Understanding the Teenage Point of View

Just as the decision-making skills of adults differ from person to person, the decision-making skills of teens are closely tied to individual ambitions and personality traits. What seems like a poor decision to Mom and Dad might be a great decision in the teenager’s eyes. Children in their teenage years tend to have goals related to gaining social standing, and in many cases gaining social standing requires making decisions that are clearly poor ones from any other standpoint, such as engaging in underage drinking, driving dangerously and mistreating others. Knowing where your teen is coming from is the first step in helping her develop strong decision-making skills 1.

Compromise on Goals

Parents who judge a teen’s decision are using their personal goals in making such a judgment. For example, a teen who helps a classmate cheat on a test might be chasing the goal of gaining the affection of a classmate. But in Mom’s eyes, focused on a goal of helping her child achieve academic success and strong ethics, such a decision stems from poor decision-making skills. The fact is that a decision like cheating on a test can be bad and good at the same time, just from different perspectives. Before you help your teen improve her decision-making skills, you will have to be willing to compromise on goals, aiming for a win-win situation for both you and your teen.

Focus on Reasons

Many parents feel that dealing with children is easier than dealing with teens because children don’t always ask for the reasons why they should do what Mom and Dad say. Teens, on the contrary, seem to need to know your rationale. This can work to your advantage, because it means your children are finally at the stage where reasons can be persuasive. Discuss with your teen why you feel his decisions are poor and why you think he should add other goals and criteria into his decision-making process. Explain to him that he is risking his safety and grades for short-term social regard. Explain your reasoning behind why he shouldn’t drive with friends in the car. Use goals as the focus and reasons as the language: “I understand you want to show your friends your car, but you are underestimating the risk of an accident. You are also overestimating your resistance to peer pressure. I want you to have good relationships with your friends, but I also want you to be safe.”


Once your teen gets where you are coming from, you can begin brainstorming win-win situations with him. Don’t do all the thinking for him; instead, lead him with questions so that he gets in the habit of this sort of thinking. For example, if you are having an issue about whether he should be able to have friends in the car, ask him for other possible ways to achieve his goals: “What other ways could you show your friends your new car without taking them for a joy ride?” Your teen will often come back with many solutions, some likely acceptable to you -- e.g., photograph the car and post it on Facebook or be allowed to drive the car to and from school. By getting your teen in the habit of brainstorming win-win solutions, you are training him to stay safe and achieve his goals simultaneously.