Guiding Adolescents in Healthy Decision Making

Adolescence is a time of incredible growth and transformation. The developing adolescent mind is capable of unprecedented reasoning. Teenagers begin to resemble adults more in ability and appearance. Socially, there is the “graduation” from supervised play dates to independent outings with friends of their own choosing.
For parents and professionals who work with teenagers, it can be an effort to keep pace with these changes. Adolescents face dilemmas of judgment and decision-making that seem to multiply in intensity with each year that passes. Adult-like fashion and products are marketed to younger and younger girls all the time, and technology increases avenues for social contact and the dissemination of information, while decreasing the amount of control parents have over either. These are truly challenging times.

They are also times of incredible opportunity. Advances in science, psychology and sociology mean that we understand adolescence now better than we ever have before. And those challenges I just listed? We are now able to identify the specific skill sets that an individual needs for healthy decision-making. Best of all, we understand how these skills sets unfold in the adolescent brain–and what we can do to support their development.

First, a brief (and simple) tour of adolescent brain development. Ever wonder why common sense seems to take a dip during adolescence? The answer has arrived! During the teenage years, the parts of the brain responsible for expressing emotions and seeking gratification mature more quickly than the parts which generate good judgment, impulse control, and balanced decision making. In fact, the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of self-management, is not fully mature until approximately age 25 in women (and slightly later for men). So, from the perspective of neuroscience, an adolescent is someone whose emotions and impulses are significantly more developed than her ability to manage either.

This can come as daunting news. If it’s a brain thing, how do we safely guide the teens in our lives through the myriad decisions they will face before brain maturation is complete? Well, one more important piece of neuroscience provides the answer.

Let’s go back to the prefrontal cortex, which is located just behind the forehead. This part of the brain is responsible for a cluster of skill sets called the executive functions. These include the ability to sort through data (including past experience) effectively to reach a decision, the capacity to set priorities based on future goals and make choices consistent with them, mindfulness of consequences, controlling harmful impulses, delaying gratification, and skills like organization and time management, among others. Development of the prefrontal cortex is correlated with healthy decision-making around substance use, risky sexual behaviors, and other perils of adolescence. I like to call the prefrontal cortex the Self-Management Center.

Here is the scientific tidbit that puts a whole lot of power back in the hands of parents and caring professionals: The prefrontal cortex develops most powerfully in the context of relationship and connection. Within relationship and constructive interaction, brain growth is stimulated. Intense learning and development take place. And this can be as simple as a thought-provoking conversation with your teen about a controversial topic. As natural as an honest sharing about the conclusions you have come to about substance use, sex, and healthy dating relationships. As basic as a two-way dialogue about the opportunities and pressures your adolescent faces.

The beautiful truth is that most teenagers come equipped with the very resources they need in order to mature: You.

You don’t believe they are listening? They are. You’re sure that all your advice goes in one ear and out the other? It doesn’t. This is a process. And the accumulated wisdom that the adolescent you parent or mentor stores from her interactions with you matters. As these positive interactions support her brain’s development, it will be your voice she hears when she stands at the crossroads.

As simple as the answer is in the midst of all this neuroscience jargon, it is easier said than done. Caring deeply about a teenager makes it difficult to stay calm when she is facing a serious risk, or when she has impulsively made a harmful choice. The guidelines below are designed to help communication with your adolescent stay within the bounds of those “constructive interactions” in which brain maturation can occur.

1. Stay calm. When the brain is flooded with emotion, the “thinking” parts shut down and fight or flight takes over. Staying calm keeps the thinking parts functioning, and allows your teen to absorb what you are saying.
2. Keep the conversation two-way. The brain is engaged when one has an active role in the conversation. Lectures cause tune-out. When you find yourself becoming frustrated or demanding as you talk, take a step back.
3. Stay curious. Pepper your conversation with questions. “What do you think about this?” “What were you thinking/feeling when you did that?” “If you were your best friend looking at this situation, what advice would you give yourself?” Everyone feels respected when asked what they think.
4. Listen. This means more than staying silent while you plan the next thing you’re going to say. No matter how frustrated or anxious listening makes you, approach it with the goal to understand. Feeling understood is validating. You will likely find that your teen is much more willing to hear what you have to say once she feels truly heard. Your listening also gives your adolescent a chance to “try out” her own thoughts and opinions with a wise adult as audience. Wouldn’t you rather she does this with you? Listening will also give you a rich gift: Knowing your teenager better.
5. Be honest. I will sometimes say to a risk-taking teen, “You know, I want to be honest and tell you that what you’re describing makes me really scared for you.” When this is said calmly and with concern, it can take the conversation to a whole new level. Listening must be balanced with sharing. Share your concerns, and why you’re concerned. If appropriate, explain how you achieved your conclusions from your own life or other lives that you have witnessed. These are the nuggets of wisdom your teen will remember.
6. Be respectful. Folks are sometimes surprised at the level of detail teens share with me. I am certain that they share so openly because they know that I respect them. When I hear about an error in judgment, I strive to keep my own critical judgment in check. Criticism closes down communication. Treating teens with respect teaches them to expect respect in relationships, and to step away from relationships in which respect is missing.

Following these guidelines will help to create the conditions needed for adolescent maturation and growth. For additional support, the Institute for Girls’ Development offers several avenues for fostering healthy adolescent and family development. In addition to individual, family and group therapy, Parent Coaching with one of our childhood and adolescence experts can provide a space to address a family’s unique struggles, and develop effective strategies. Our Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group program equips adolescent girls and their families with skills to increase their capacity for self-management, healthy decision-making, and positive communication. If you would like more information, please get in touch.

Recommended Further Reading

Teenage Brain Development and Vulnerability to Drug Use

What Is the Prefrontal Cortex?

Adolescent Brains Are Works in Progress

Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.

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