Why Teens Make Bad Decisions and How Parents Can Guide Them

Have you ever been a teenager? Try thinking of a few instances when you have royally screwed up being a teen. Right now, our past behaviours might just make us go ‘What was I thinking?’ but the reality is, we weren’t really thinking enough.

Being a teenager is already complicated enough. The transition from childhood and adulthood has never been easy on any of us. From having their bodies changing physically and mentally to enduring peer pressure, teenagers are subjected to immense stress. This does not include the Asian parents’ high expectations of their children’s academic performances. This period of finding their own way through this complex world can lead them to make some very questionable decisions.

But is that all the reason why teenagers are synonyms to bad decisions? The reality is far from the truth. Studies have shown that the brain area that is involved in decision-making processes does not finish developing until the early-to-mid 20s. This part of the brain that is known as the prefrontal cortex plays a big role in executive function that helps us evaluate the good and the bad, consequences of our behaviour, thoughts that are conflicting, and having social control. Hopefully, this explains your questionable teenage choices. However, not all hope is lost because parents do possess the ability to help guide their teenagers towards better decision-making. Here are a few ways how.

Pause, Take A Step Back, Think

We, adults, are still sometimes at the mercy of our own emotions with the fully developed prefrontal cortex. Imagine how much harder would it be for teenagers then? Train your teenager to not react to situations but to respond to them. Basing their decisions on only overwhelming emotions without critical thinking can result in impulsive decisions. As a teenager, I was an impulsive person who often gave in to my emotions. But here’s something my father repeated to me like a mantra, ‘Don’t give your remote control to someone else’. What a simple but profound thing to say. He was emphasizing that no matter what emotions I felt, I was ultimately responsible when it comes to how I respond to a situation. Understandably, parenting cannot be as easy as repeating something multiple times and hoping it would work out. Try to train your teenagers to respond instead of reacting in their everyday situations. This equips them with the skill of taking a step back during overwhelming situations and respond better which ultimately helps in better decision-making.

If they still feel confused about whether something is right or wrong, ask them to question if it’s something they would be able to bravely tell you, their parents, and justify their actions. If it feels like something they will not be able to bravely tell you, then it’s a sign that it’s a potentially bad decision that needs more contemplation.

Source: School photo created by jcomp – www.freepik.com

Positive Reinforcements

Positive reinforcement is a part of the theory of operant conditioning by behaviourist B.F. Skinner, where consequences shape people’s behaviours. Positive reinforcement involves a reinforcing stimulus that will follow a certain behaviour, which likely increases the chances of that certain behaviour occurring again in the future. Praise is a form of positive reinforcement.

While your teenagers might have made some very questionable decisions, there are also decisions they would have portrayed intelligence and critical thinking skills. These are the decisions you should build on through praises and other forms of rewards. Something as simple as and personal as ‘I understand it wouldn’t have been easy to make the right decision, but I’m incredibly proud of the bravery you’ve shown today’ would do. It gives your teenagers a sense of acknowledgement of and appreciation for their good behaviour by not letting them go unnoticed. It also increases the instances of them making better decisions since they’re encouraged to do so.

Communication With An Open Mind

Mutual trust between parents and their children is vital. Teenagers will not trust you enough to allow you to guide them if their honesty will only put them in trouble. This is the case in most households as teenagers have become reluctant to share anything with their parents. They feel as if parents set in their own ways will only minimize and disregard their feelings when shared. Parents need to ‘grow’.

The habit of honest communication must be first set forth by parents to not only set an example to their teenagers on how it is done but also to create a safe space for their children. Here the element of open-mindedness is also crucial. If everything said by the teenagers is just going to be silently judged without trying to understand where they’re coming from, then honest communication loses its purpose.

When teenagers are planning to engage in risky behaviours or are feeling peer pressure, being able to communicate them to their parents allows parents to intervene before any bad decision-making takes place. This might be in the form of advice, suggestions, or by providing the necessary resources. This process allows teenagers to get a better idea to differentiate between right and wrong and make better decisions. However, parents mustn’t hijack the entire decision-making process by making the decisions for them. Instead, parents should be guiding their teenagers so better decisions can be made by them. This ensures a long-term goal of training independent children capable of making their own decisions during adulthood.

Source: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Turn Mistakes In Lessons Learnt

Although parents have the best intentions at heart, their overpowering love for their teenagers might just always try to avoid teenagers from getting into any trouble by making the decisions for them instead. While this is vital in situations where the teenager might commit crimes or take any action that can potentially harm someone else, there are other areas that parents can allow their teenagers to learn from their mistakes. No matter the lectures you’re ready to give about why your teenagers should not be ever doing something, nothing can make them learn it better than the experience of making the mistakes themselves. While it is crucial to be stern when approaching them post-mistakes, constant criticisms on how they should have not made it in the first place will not change anything. However, if you were to sit with them and have an honest heart-to-heart conversation, that might help them understand their actions and their consequences better.

There is no right way to being great parents, especially to teenagers who are most likely in their rebellious phase. However, parents can always try to ‘grow’ to practice better ways to help their teenagers make better decisions than just criticising and punishing them. While these may not be the only ways to do so, it’s somewhere parents can begin.


Jananie Chandrarao is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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Jananie Chandrarao
Author: Jananie Chandrarao

Psychology undergrad with a flair for writing.