As our children grow into their own people, who are free to make their own decisions, parents can get pretty scared about what decisions they will make. We hope that we have instilled good values and they will make healthy decisions for themselves, but the reality is, teenagers’ brains prime them to make not-so-good decisions. The human brain doesn’t fully develop until the mid-twenties, and the last part of the brain to fully develop is the Prefrontal Cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and logical thinking. So not all of a teenager’s brain is “online” yet, and the part that is most “off-line” is the part that actually helps them make logical decisions. At the same time, the sensation-seeking parts of the teenage brain are more active than they were during elementary/middle childhood or will be during adulthood. So it’s natural for teenagers to seek out new (and sometimes risky) experiences.
Physiologically, there are a lot of reasons why teenagers who have been raised with great values, can make decisions that leave us adults scratching our heads. Parents often think, “But they know better!” and “She wasn’t raised like that!” Please know that some poor decisions are very normal, based on what is going on in the teenager brain. The good news is, there are some things parents can do to help their teenagers through this time, and remember, this too shall pass!
For starters, it’s important to remember that even if your child makes a “not-so-wise” decision, s/he is not a horrible kid. They are just going through a natural developmental phase that we have all gone through. It’s important to continually remind yourself about what is going on with their brain development, and make sure they know that at times, it will likely be difficult to make the “right” choice. Talking to your child about what is going on with his/her brain is important. This way you can talk about how to handle situations where there may be more likelihood that they do something impulsive or risky, in a non-blaming/judgmental kind of way.
It’s also just so important to have open communication. And what I mean by “open communication” is communication that is non-shaming and non-judgmental. We always want to communicate unconditional acceptance of our child, even though we may feel very judgmental of whatever decision they may have made. Make sure to distinguish between the child as a person, and the child’s choices/behaviors. Yes, there is a connection between our choices and our character, but considering what a teen’s brain is going through, some poor decisions do not necessarily show us much about their actual character. Teenagers also need to know your love is not conditional on their choices or behaviors. Children that really feel this have a much easier time making healthy decisions for themselves later, because through your unconditional love, they will develop self-acceptance. And the more a person has high levels of self-acceptance, the more they will be empathetic of others, which usually leads to healthier decision making in many areas of our lives.
It’s also really important to communicate the connection between responsibility and freedom. As teenagers grow, they need to see that they more they are able to make good decisions, the freer the parental reins will be. And it’s important for teens to see that the limits parents place are there to help keep the teens safe and healthy (since teens brains will probably not totally do this for them yet) rather than being there to have excessive control over the teenager. So it’s natural that the more a teens is able to be responsible and safe, the less the parents will have to do this for them. Allow your teens small opportunities to practice responsible/safe behavior, and build on those.