How to Guide Your Teens to Make Good Decisions

By Timothy Yen, Psy.D.

“Hey son, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Sometimes our teens may think “you just don’t get it” because they think our perspectives are no longer relevant to what they are going through. Clearly, all of us parents have been teens before and wished that we listened to some of our own advice! Now that we have the opportunity to guide our kids to make better decisions, what if they don’t listen? The reality is our kids will make some mistakes; just like we have done or said regrettable things. Whether or not our teens listen to our counsel, it is still our job to train and guide them. So how do we get them to listen? The key is to talk to them in the most loving AND tactful way. Here are three suggestions to put you in the optimal mindset to guide your teens into making good decisions:

1: Be an Emotionally Safe Person

If you knew that whatever you shared was going to be immediately criticized, you would be stupid to share it. After all, no one wants to be judged. The same goes for your teen. Teens are sensitive creatures who are constantly evaluating themselves and their surroundings. It is developmentally appropriate for teens to be hyper self-conscious because they are forming their identities and figuring themselves out. If teens get even a whiff of negativity or disapproval, they will unconsciously shut down and be on the defensive.

So how do we become emotionally safe people? We need to present ourselves as emotionally warm and open-minded. What is the point of having all this wisdom if your teens experience your advice as criticism? Look in the mirror and ask yourself “Would I open up to me?” If not, then change your face and body posture. A funny exercise you may want to try is finding someone or something that warms your heart. It may be an adorable baby, puppy, or a picture of your favorite vacation spot. Allow your feelings to show up and look at your facial expression. The soft eyes, relaxed face, and open posture is what your teens need to see to feel safe to be honest with you.

2: Stay Curious

As parents, sometimes you work too hard. That’s right. You care so much about your teen that you will go the extra mile to make sure they are taken care of and on track to be productive contributing citizens. To “ensure” success, we are often too quick to give the “right” answer without taking the time to give your teen space to figure things out themselves. By giving them the answer, our teens may not metabolize your wisdom as their own. In the book, The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Bryson, Ph.D., the authors introduce the concept of being your child’s surrogate brain. In short, that means providing the steps to help develop your teen into critically thinking beings. Instead of giving them your answer, consider asking a question about their thoughts around a decision instead. For example, instead of saying “I don’t you should go to the party” which is giving them your answer, you may start with a validating statement like “It sounds like you really want to go to that party. It makes sense because all your friends will be there.” Then ask, “What kind of concerns do you think may come up at the party?” and “What do you think is the best way to address these concerns?” They may not have an answer right away but at least you are planting some seeds of thought for them to consider. Create dialogue that allows your teen to share his thoughts and feelings about a situation as you maintain a stance of non-judgmental curiosity.

3: Invite Them Into Your Mindset

Good decision-making is not a one-time event; it is a lifelong skill. The best way to impart those skills is to live them, not just say them. Teens are much more likely to do what you do, not do what you say (as much as we wished they would just do the latter!). Your teens are in an awkward stage in their life. I would argue that it is the most difficult season of their life. They are physically and mentally capable enough to know what they want but they do not have the maturity and responsibility to always get what they want. They are trapped between the ignorance of a child and the freedom of an adult. How frustrating! A great way to think about guiding our teens is to model and explain our own decision-making. After all, we cannot give what we don’t have! Consider being more vulnerable by letting your teens into your thought process about certain decisions. There may be a dilemma that you are facing, and a difficult decision must be made. Share with your teen the reason for the struggle and how that makes you feel. Then explain why you ultimately decided to do this instead of that. For example (which is actually a true story), let’s say that you are running late to a dinner gathering and realize that you forgot to buy a housewarming gift. You may explain “We are running late for this dinner and did not have time to buy a housewarming gift. Even though it would be easier to show up without one, I have an important value of blessing our friends with a housewarming gift instead of showing up empty-handed. So, I will send a text to our host that we apologize for running late which communicates thoughtfulness and quickly pick up a nice succulent plant before heading to their house.” By communicating with your teen your decision-making process, your teens will understand your values and allow them to think in a similar way.

If good decision-making is a challenging area for yourself or would like a little more structure on how to present it, you are not alone! In my book Choose Better: The Optimal Decision-Making Framework provides some easy step-by-step ideas on how to make effective and authentic decisions in any situation. Making good decisions may not always be easy but it is certainly always worth it. Be the parent that your teens need by showing how much you care in a way they can receive it.

About the Author

Dr. Timothy Yen is a psychologist and consultant with a Doctorate of Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in consultation from Azusa Pacific University, practicing in the East Bay area and leading conferences and retreats around the globe. He is the author of the best-selling book Choose Better: The Optimal Decision-Making Framework. Between his years in private practice, Kaiser Permanente, and another eight years as a Mental Health Staff Sergeant in the US Army, he’s empowered hundreds of individuals, families, organizations, and teams to develop authentic relationships and grow into their best selves. He currently resides in Northern California with his wife and son. You can learn more at www.timyen.com.

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