How to Help a Teenager Make Good Decisions

Hormonal and environmental changes can lead teenagers down many routes. To many parents’ confusion, some teenagers’ evolutions take them to habitually poor decision-making, which is actually a common trait of teenagers. Naturally, such a habit makes parent-teen cooperation difficult, especially when a parent wants her teen to do what a “responsible adolescent” would do, such as concentrating on homework and doing chores before going out to socialize. The fact that your teen is a poor decision-maker doesn’t relieve him of his responsibilities, nor does it relieve you from using problem-solving strategies that can push him back to doing his homework and cleaning his room, in spite of his resistance.

Differentiate real problems from acts of pure “teenagerism.” Pick your battles. Know that teens often make poor decisions simply because they don’t have the experiences from which to draw. By making small, harmless mistakes, such as quitting a hobby she recently spent a couple hundred dollars getting into, a teen learns good decision-making skills on her own via self-correction. Next time, she'll be more likely to analyze a buying decision before spending her money. Don’t give into the thought that your teen is making bad decisions just to spite you, as it’s more likely she’s doing these out of a genuine inability to determine what’s best for her. Remember that teenagers are in the self-identity phase of life, a time in which they feel the need to explore and experiment with different selves in order to find the true self. They will make mistakes. Allow this to happen naturally, and only step in when reasoning with your teen is a preventative medicine for something dangerous or irresponsible, such as smoking or skipping school.

Demonstrate tolerance. Show your teen you understand his decisions as well as the emotions and motivations from which those decisions stem. Emphasize that you don’t have to agree with his decisions to treat his views as valid. By not judging or ridiculing his opinions, tastes or style, you are opening the road for better communication and problem-solving opportunities, according to the organization A Change in Thinking.

Set clear expectations. Be the parent when you have to reason with your teen. Avoid arguing with your teen because doing so could give her the impression that she’s on equal footing. Instead, point out your family values and expectations, emphasizing her responsibilities within the family. Use these values and responsibilities to drive your reasoning. For example, if your teen refuses to study for her math final because “math is pointless,” explain that you expect her to perform well in school, even in the “pointless” classes. Because you’ve already tolerated her opinion on math without trying to change her viewpoint, you two can easily agree that math isn’t so useful yet avoid taking the next step to say, “Let’s just give up on math, then.” From here, you can let her know you still expect her to do well in math class for reasons based on the family expectations.

Find compromises. Trade superficial freedoms, such as clothing style and after-school hobbies for the promise that he’ll live up to academic and family responsibilities. Allow your teen to be himself, provided he lives up to your expectations. When possible, give him reasonable alternatives. For example, if you want your intelligent teen to bolster his high school transcripts for college applications, give him the option of either signing up for honors English or honors math. Not only does giving up a bit of control through these discussions with your teen solve many conflicts, but the extra freedom you give him can also improve his decision-making and emotion-regulation skills, according to John Gottman, author of “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Teen.” So go ahead and let him hang out with his friends on the weekends, just as long as he’s completed his homework first 12.


Teenagers who engage in increasingly dangerous or suicidal behaviors might be beyond your help. In such a case, consult a mental health professional.