Why teens think the way they do

Ask any parent or adult and we will say the same thing. We all want to raise our children to become happy, healthy, and productive adults. With that comes the ability to make good decisions, understand how to navigate the world, and most of all, how to handle tough decisions. However, in our effort to do what is “best” for our children, we can often unwittingly and unintentionally hinder them toward this goal. As a result, they learn to make decisions that are best for us rather than decisions that are best for them, even if it differs from our preferences. Or worse, they may make decisions completely contrary to our desires as a way of asserting their own independence, even if it is harmful.

When it comes to our kids making good decisions, it is important to first understand the decision-making process and how it relates to adolescence. Problem solving and logic happen in the prefrontal lobe of our brains, a part of the brain which is not fully formed until much later in life. Some researchers assert that this happens as late as age 25. This area is best used when eliciting strategic thought in working through a problem. The emotional center of our brains, however, are formed much earlier. This is the part responsible for our instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. While it may appear that our emotional center is not as useful in problem solving, this area actually works best when eliciting strategic performance.

Since adolescents are likely to use emotion rather than reason to solve problems, they tend to act more impulsively. They are less likely to think before they act and often misinterpret social cues and facial expressions. Teen brains are much like a Ferrari without brakes. Once they get going, it is hard to stop. Their youth affords them the ability to think quickly and they are actually more efficient in processing information. However, we all know that emotional reasoning has its limitations. Added to their plight is age. They simply do not have enough life experience so they must pull their information from more idealized views. In order to work through tough decisions and better problem solve, they must learn to use their prefrontal lobes and like anything else, the more they use it, the stronger it will become. As parents, the best thing we can give them is the freedom to figure it out.

We have all heard the phrase “give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” This concept also applies here. When we “give” our children the answers to tough decisions through coercion and manipulation, all in the context of “knowing what is best for them,” they will only problem solve for the day. If, however, we give them the space to activate that prefrontal lobe, think through the process, and practice newly learned skills, they will learn to problem solve for a lifetime and tough decisions will not stump them.

We are in charge of our children, not in control of them. Our job is to guide them, ask them questions, play devil’s advocate at times, and teach them to think for themselves. Above all, let them decide on as many tough decisions as possible. Keep in mind that we are still the adults so we may need to step in when necessary. However, even in this case we will be surprised how many times we thought we needed to step in when stepping back was the better option. Let them know we trust them. Even if they use faulty logic and fail, which they will, let them know we trust they will figure it out. Failure is an amazing learning experience. Besides, they may just surprise us and succeed!

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