Why Teens Make Bad Decisions and How Parents Can Guide Them

Choosing a path for the future and making big decisions can be scary for teenagers. What more when uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to loom over us? How can parents support their teens during these times?

If you have a teenager who was supposed to sit for SPM or STPM examinations last year, it must have been a frustrating experience for them, and for you as well! The pandemic caused exam delays and students had to adapt to remote learning. This is demotivating for many teens. They now have to worry about their results and plan for the next steps in their lives. Transitioning into adulthood during such trying times is tough.

Teenagers’ tendencies for poor decisions

As teens grow towards independence, their lack of experience may cause difficulties in making life decisions. They are considered to be psychosocially immature and are more likely to:

  • Engage in risk-taking behaviour
  • Make impulsive choices
  • Focus on short-term goals
  • Prefer instant gratification
  • Fall for peer pressure
  • Fail to consider consequences

There is a biological explanation behind this. The frontal lobe of the brain, which plays a role in decision-making, impulse control, consequential thinking and emotional responses, only fully develops at the age of early- or mid-20s. Hence, teens and emerging adults may make unsound decisions, especially when they feel pressured, stressed or are influenced by their peers. They need adequate guidance from experienced adults to be more resourceful in decision-making.

After school: the next step

This is probably the first major decision in your teen’s life. The common choice is whether or not to further one’s studies at a college or university. But other options can also be explored.

  • Tertiary education: Vast options are available nowadays and it can be overwhelming. Conflicts may arise if parents try to impose their own preferences on their child. Do voice your concerns, especially if the current pandemic has raised financial implications which your teen may not be aware of. Listen to each other and have a reasonable discussion with him. Speak to experts in the field to address any questions about future careers.
  • Work/Vocational Training: Tertiary education is important, but not everyone is academically inclined. What’s important is that teenagers learn skills that make them relevant in the community. This can be done through work or vocational training. Some companies may provide support for their employees to further study later.
  • Time off: Some may want to take a time off before deciding. This is a very good time to join a volunteer programme or other non-traditional options such as exploring entrepreneurship programmes that provide business development and sustainability training. This route may be less common locally, but it can provide a unique and enriching experience for teenagers. It is also a way for them to explore their interests.

Parental guidance

Based on our understanding, teens would need help with deciding on their future directions, and would benefit from parental guidance. Tips for how to guide teens include:

  • Brainstorm all options: Teens often only see limited options, particularly when they’re in a tight spot. Encourage them to take a bit more time to come up with more diverse solutions. You can also offer suggestions.
  • Analyse pros & cons: Advise him to list all the pros and cons of his options based on available resources, skills and interest. Then, eliminate one by one to pick the best choice. This helps them to choose with reason, instead of just emotions.
  • Plan the next step: After making the decision, ask him what the next step should be and how would this step be measured in terms of success. It’s also good to evaluate the decision together to see if it’s a good decision and how to make better decisions in the future.
  • Discuss hypothetical scenarios: Talk to him about possible scenarios or outcomes he may face and the ways to manage the situation. For example, what should he do if his college or job application is rejected? Or if he realises he dislikes the course or job he chose?
  • Seek for help: Let teenagers know they can always approach you, other family members or counsellors for advice. Assure them you are open to any questions and they don’t have to decide on their own. Be open to seeking help yourself because you will not have all the answers.

A final note

Remind your teen that deciding on the future is not easy. We cannot predict the future and may regret certain decisions. There is no best choice because of constant changes. Instead, choosing what’s good enough and doable may be more practical and manageable at the moment.

What’s important is that they learn to be accountable and responsible for their decisions, and to understand there are many other external factors contributing to the outcome of our life choices. It is tough for teens in the beginning, so parental support is crucial. You’ll also have to adjust your boundaries as you allow your teen to be more independent. So, use this exercise as a learning process for both you and your teen in deciding for the future.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Society of Clincial Psychology.

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