Why Should Adolescents Make Their Own Decisions?

The role of increased control on adjustment.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

Geralt/Pixaby
Source: Geralt/Pixaby

How often have you said or heard another parent comment, “I just want my kids to be happy"? The other side of that wish is a fear that they won’t be. That fear results in our desire to make sure our kids make decisions that will lead them down the path to happiness.

As a mom, I have to remind myself of a few things to reduce that anxiety. First, I can’t control everything. I realize that is obvious, but even the obvious slips by us sometimes. Second, there is not only one path to happiness, but rather many possible options. Related to that, I have to remember I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me which path is “right” for my kids’ happiness.

As a psychologist, I share these messages with many parents of adolescents. Professionally, I know that one contributing factor to kids’ happiness is allowing them to make their own choices. The belief that they have the ability to control their lives is associated with increased well-being, decreased depression and anxiety, decreased involvement in high-risk activities, decreased psychological stress, and decreased obesity. That is a lot of decreases.

This is not to say that adolescents should make all decisions pertaining to their lives, but an increasing proportion of them as they get older. Further, given that an adolescent’s decision-making skills are still developing, parents need to be involved in the decision-making process. Rather than making decisions for their teens and tweens, however, I encourage parents to help them weigh the pros and cons.

An important component of allowing adolescents increased control over their decisions is allowing them to experience the natural consequences. As Behaviorists know, we change our behavior based on the results of our actions. When we experience a positive outcome, we continue with similar decision-making. However, if we experience a negative outcome, we are inclined to change our actions. Rather than trying to control our adolescent’s decisions, we can shape them by allowing them to handle the results.

Despite my professional knowledge, I know how difficult it is to watch our children make decisions we do not agree with. I put my money where my mouth is when my daughter wanted to quit swimming. My husband and I loved swimming for her. It was a great way to be a part of a team, get healthy exercise, and be productive. Not to mention that it has been great for her big brother. My daughter did not agree that this was the activity for her. After much discussion of the pros and cons, we let her make the call. There were some expectations that she would find alternative ways to be productive and get exercise, but swimming did not have to be the path.

It was not always smooth sailing. My husband and I second-guessed ourselves as we watched her struggle. However, six months later, we agreed she made the right call for her. She found a new activity in horseback riding that she is now passionate about. The arguments over going to swim practice have been replaced by requests for more time at the barn including a working student position there. Most importantly, she is happier and more self-motivated.

I reminded myself of this experience when my son approached me about his bedtime.

He said he was the only kid in high school with an early bed time and he wanted more control over it. So fair: This is definitely something I have controlled out of anxiety.

Like many parents, I am always worried about sleep deprivation and the consequences for mental health and school work. In addition, my son has a long history of sleep disorder and maintains a crazy schedule. That said, he is off to college in a few years, so he needs to learn to monitor his own sleep.

We started letting him decide when to go to bed. There were nights when, in my opinion, he stayed up too late. He had to experience the consequences of how tired he was. However, he learned to listen to his body on a lot of nights and is willing to accept the results when he does not.

I would like to point out that I am definitely not suggesting an absence of rules. There are issues we feel strongly enough about that we have to lay down the law. However, we need to pick and choose those issues. There needs to be a balance that doesn’t leave kids out of control of their own lives. We can start with the small decisions and work our way up to helping kids make mindful decisions about their own lives.

References

Gallagher, M. W., Bentley, K. H., & Barlow, D. H. (2014). Perceived control and vulnerability to anx- iety disorders: A meta-analytic review. Cognitive Thehrapy and Research, 38, 571–584. 

Heckhausen, J., & Schulz, R. (1995). A life-span theory of control. Psychological Review, 102, 284–304. 

Seligman, M. E., Abramson, L. Y., Semmel, A., & von Baeyer, C. (1979). Depressive attributional style.Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 242– 247.