Helping Teens Navigate the Perilous Landscape of Good Decision-Making

The human brain does not reach full development until the early to mid-twenties. The last part to fully mature is the frontal lobe, which controls decision-making. As with any skill, there are ways that parents can help their child develop positive decision-making skills, particularly when addressing topics such as sex, drug and alcohol use, and relationships.

Your teen’s physical development and exposure to adult situations generally arrive a dozen years before their brain is ready to maturely address them.

Even at a young age, it is important for children to begin to understand how actions have consequences – both good and bad. Allowing a child to experience a bad repercussion (one that is obviously not dangerous to their wellbeing) is key to helping him understand that he should avoid risky behaviors and learn from his mistakes.

When children enter adolescence, they are faced with difficult decisions, some of which can have life-altering and long-term negative consequences. Since we can’t shelter our kids forever and expect them to become well-adjusted, productive members of society, adolescence is the perfect time to begin setting expectations.

“Kids are going to have questions and they will be faced with difficult decisions. If a child is not secure in themselves and are unaware of the serious repercussions and potential consequences for something like drinking or sex, they can be more likely to give in to peer pressure,” said Stephanie Moses, Outpatient Therapist for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “If you get angry or dodge questions when your child brings up a sensitive topic, they will likely stop coming to you. They are going to seek out information and you want to be part of what they are learning so you can also help them understand the potential consequences, as well as your own expectations for them on the topic.”

Responding angrily or accusingly if your teen broaches sensitive subjects like sex and drugs, can shut down communication at a time when they need your support and guidance the most.

Helping your child envision the “big picture” for their lives is also helpful in steering them toward positive choices. Ask what is important to them – sports, friends, grades, going to college? Showing them how certain activities or peer groups can affect or hinder them from “their success” can help to sway them from participating in risky behavior. This can also help you gain an understanding about how well your child understands the potential consequences of such activities.

Modeling positive behavior is also critical in aiding a child’s decision-making process, particularly in friendships and relationships. Children begin to pick up behaviors from their parents at an early age. What example are you setting? Does your child see positive conflict resolution in your relationships? Do they see inclusion and compassion in your friendships? These lessons, while they may be somewhat influenced by peers, begin at home.

Parents need to remember their own teen years and share their experience with their child. Were there decisions you wish you made differently? Were there consequences you or maybe your peers experienced that were life-altering? Share these memories with your child to show why you want them to avoid certain behaviors, but also understand, they may not always heed your advice. Make sure, regardless of the decisions your child makes, you keep the lines of communication open and remind them you are always there.

Your teen may find it difficult to believe you faced some of the same challenges as a teen. Sharing some of your own struggles and the consequences of your actions, can help them understand that you can relate to their problems and have the benefit of life experiences they can apply to their own situation.

“One of the most dangerous things that can happen is when a child finds themselves in a bad situation and is afraid to tell their parents and ask for help,” said Moses. “When you begin to have these conversations with your kids, ask them what they know about drugs, alcohol and even sex and casually find out if they or any of their friends have tried these activities.”

Father and sonMoses reiterates if a child admits to having been involved in risky behavior, try not to overreact but instead thank them for being honest. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, but be aware of how you react. Getting angry can quickly close down communication. Talk openly about all the potential consequences (addiction, pregnancy, overdose, disease, injury, etc.), and ask your child how they felt about the experience. This can also be a great time to discuss an “out” or safe word. If your child finds him/herself in a situation they aren’t comfortable with, they can use a safe word to discreetly let you know they need help. This allows them to save face with peers and safely gets them out of the situation.

When helping your teens set high standards for their decision-making and behavior, make sure they know that even if they stumble, you will be there for them to provide love and support.

Bad decisions are often made in the midst of stressful situations, pressure from peers (and sometimes adults) and when seeking acceptance. Moments of heightened emotion are when teens may act more impulsively or reactively to a situation. Having discussions early and encouraging your child to stop and think before speaking or acting can help them to make better decisions in general, not just about risky behavior. Understanding your child’s feelings and evaluating risk/reward is key to good decision-making and staying safe.

While we shouldn’t make all decisions for our kids, we can lay a foundation for good decision-making skills that can be built on. Be sure your child knows that even if he/she makes a bad decision that you are still in their corner and, while disappointed, will love them regardless.

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 2.33.45 PMNow, there’s an app for that. Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi is excited about the launch of the Healthy Teens Mississippi App. The goal is that every teen in the state choose pathways that will help them live balanced lives, be treated with respect and achieve good physical, emotional, and mental health. The Healthy Teens Mississippi App is a great resource for teens, parents, schools, and community health organizations. For more visit www.healthyteensapp.com.

Laura Walker is the staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. Canopy is Mississippi’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions. For more information about services through Canopy Children’s Solutions, visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.

This article was featured in the July/August 2018 edition of Well Being Magazine. Find more articles from Well Being by visiting http://www.wellbeingmag.com/

Test for Success

Grades are important, they help determine college selections, scholarship eligibility, and can guide future careers. One-third of all teens experience anxiety, particularly leading up to midterms, finals, ACTs and SATs. As parents, you can help ease children’s anxiety while encouraging them to do their best.

“Parents should support their children academically; however, some parents will add to the pressure a child already feels,” said Stephanie Moses, MAMFT, Outpatient Therapist for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “Children need the freedom to be children while acknowledging their academic responsibilities. It’s about balance.”

Preparing your child for strong academic performance begins at an early age. Instilling a love of learning through books, puzzles and academic play shows your child that learning is important. As a child grows, adapting those learning skills helps to support them in school and shows them you are equally engaged in their success. Ways to support these skills include practicing spelling words in the car, reviewing fractions while baking cookies, or reading a chapter in a book together before bed. Establishing strong study skills early is also important so that a child is accustomed to balancing school and other responsibilities. Well before a child reaches high school, these skills should be well-established. However, parents still play a critical role in their reinforcement, especially around busy test seasons.

Time management. Encourage your teen to develop a study schedule. Remind them that subjects where they excel will require less time than those where they may struggle and to budget time accordingly.

Conducive environment. Help your teen identify a setting that supports productive studying. Find a peaceful place without distractions that will help your child focus.

Encouragement. Offer your child an encouraging word when you check in on their progress. Checking in also helps you gauge burnout when a teen may need to take a break or move to another subject.

Perspective. Some teens thrive under stress but if stress negatively impacts them, give them perspective. One test or one grade isn’t going to impact their lives all that much. Reassure your teen that it will be ok, regardless of the outcome, as long as they do their best.

It’s ok to ask for help. If your child needs help, seek out local resources such as ACT prep classes, tutors or study groups. Also, if your child can’t control their stress and anxiety, schedule an appointment with a local therapist to help them develop positive coping skills and give them an opportunity to work through their stress.

Stay healthy. Ask your teen to join you for a bike ride or take a walk together. Provide nutritious meals and snacks that fuel their body and their brain. Remind your teen they need adequate sleep to properly focus and retain information. Drink lots of water and boost your immune system with daily vitamins to help stay well during test seasons.

no stress

Celebrate small victories. Did your teen complete their report on the Greek Classic The Iliad? Did they score an 89 on their Trigonometry test? Did they just come home from their first time taking the ACT? Then celebrate! Go out for dinner and ice cream, watch a movie, grab a cup of coffee or go shopping together. These opportunities tell your teen, regardless of the outcome, that you are proud of their efforts and you support them no matter what.

While it is important that we support our children’s goals and push them to reach their full potential, we must be cautious not to push beyond their limits. Remind your children that if they do their very best, that’s all you expect. It is our jobs as parents to support our children in failure and success.

By Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions