Scarleteen Confidential: Teens and Decision Making

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Unless you live under a very large rock, odds are good you've heard some statistics and research about adolescent minds and neurochemistry and how they are still doing a lot of developing through the early to mid-twenties. This timetable of brain development is often given as the reason for why young people can make impulsive or risky decisions.

This data is beneficial in that it gives us a window into how decision-making can work for adolescents, and what neurological factors play a part, including in some barriers to the kind of slow, careful decision-making often attributed to adults⁠ . In its best form, this data about development encourages us to be a little gentler with teens when they make mistakes. But it's also information that can do more harm than good when applied in certain ways to your interactions with teenagers and emerging adults.

For starters, the finding about when the brain is fully formed is used to dismiss feelings or experiences that are urgent and important to teens, and are based on who they know themselves to be so far and how they can know  and understand themselves. The clearest example of this being when adults tell LGBTQ⁠ teens that they are "too young to know what they're talking about/decide that sort of thing" when it comes to their sexual orientation⁠ or gender identity⁠ , or that said identity⁠ is "just a phase". Yes, adolescent brains are not yet developed the way that the minds of adults are, but their identity is usually something they've thought about thoroughly and feel strongly about. Automatically assuming that their decisions about those subjects are poorly reasoned or impulsively made can make them feel unsupported in some of the bigger revelations they come to. Identity isn't reliant on being at a certain phase of neurological development.

Too, having minds that function differently than the minds of adults is not the deficit it is sometimes imagined to be. Adolescent minds have their own wonderful things to offer, and lead young people to engage with the world in remarkable ways. For instance, researcher Daniel Siegel, along with others who study the intersection of neuroscience and adolescence, have identified positives of the young brain that adult brains often lack. One such instance is that young people are likely to make choices about passionate things in a passionate way.  That leads to a more joyful experience than the measure, adult alternative. When we talk about teen brains as only leading their owners to harm, we lose sight of  the ways that those same brains enrich the lives of the teenagers who inhabit them.

Even when we're talking about smaller decisions, or decisions that are made rashly or where someone changes their mind a few weeks later, coming into conversations with the perspective that teens don't really know what they're doing or how they feel is patronizing, condescending and adultist. Entering into a conversation assuming that the other person hasn't given any thought to their opinions or actions is not a respectful way to talk to someone. And when an adult does this to or about a young person, they're often conveniently forgetting ways that they knew their own hearts and minds when they were young.

Take a moment to think back on when you were a young person. More likely than not, there were choices that you made about relationships, goals, passions, what you wanted to avoid and what you wanted to embrace. Those choices were yours to make, and you made them because you knew yourself very well and knew those choices were right for you.  I am willing to bet that, with some of those choices, the adults in your life said things like "I thought the same thing at your age, but then..." or "I know you feel that way now, but just wait until you're older." How did you react those statements? Did you go, "Yes, oh wise adult, I see that you are correct and will now change my mind," or did you bristle at the implication that you didn't know what you were talking about? For a lot of us, the reaction was closer to the latter. Sometimes truly useful advice will be ignored because it was delivered in a way that teens (often rightly) read as patronizing. And it marks you, even if you don't intend it to, as someone who doesn't trust them to be an expert about their own lives.

In other words, using this approach when you talk with teenagers can create a vicious cycle in which they feel like you don't understand or respect them, and so they start sharing less and less with you. Which, in turn, will result in you understanding less and less about them and their lives because you know less and less about them. It also makes teens less likely to come to you for support when one of their choices does lead to unwanted consequences. Nobody likes hearing "I told you so," and that statement carries a double-ouch when coming from a parent or other adult whose support and approval you want. So, if you lead a conversation with the "You'll see, this is mistake," angle, they might be reluctant to admit that something did go wrong or that they did change their minds (as they just may not want to give you the satisfaction of being right).

Additionally, trying to tell teens what is and isn't the right choice for them, even if they do decide to listen to you, doesn't help them learn how to make their own best choices.  Instead, telling them what choices to make sets them up for a pattern of seeking out an authority figure to tell them what to do, rather than helping them become their own authority on what choices do and do not work for them. If you want to help young people learn how to make decisions, it's better to listen and ask questions to help them clarify their feelings and choices than to second-guess them or dismiss them out of hand.

Approaching teenagers as poor decision makers or as ignorant about their own world obscures the fact that some teens have had to deal with intense or challenging experiences already, and that a specific teen may have more knowledge about a given topic or issue than the adult they're talking to. Any teen may have faced racism⁠ , poverty, abuse⁠ or assault, mental illness, and a slew of other rough life situations. By assuming that teens can't understand the harder parts of life, you assume that they've never experienced those parts of life. Perpetuating this idea can result in treating teens who are having a rough time as exaggerating what's happening to them, rather than seriously addressing their concerns. And even if it's not big, intense stuff, teens are the experts of their own world, their own lives, and their own selves more than anyone who isn't them can possibly be.

Going along with that, dismissing teens' thoughts out of an assumption that they make poorly reasoned choices often involves a self-centered view of the world. You assume that because you didn't like the consequences of a certain choice, a teen won't either. But they are their own person, who experiences the world differently than you, just like your best friend, partner⁠ or co-worker is. A choice that was wrong for you might be right for them. As a mindset, assuming teenagers will make bad choices simply because they're young also ignores the fact that making poor or impulsive choices is not strictly the realm of teens. Plenty of adults, in fact probably every adult, make bone-headed decisions sometimes. Life experience and age add some buffers against mistakes, but they don't stop us from making them. To act as though teens have cornered the market on bad choices is disingenuous, to say the least.

There is a way in which adult experiences can be helpful for young people to hear. Adults, by virtue of having been on the planet longer, have had more chances to run this simulation called life, to try things and see the consequences, to figure out which actions and choices make us happy, and which we regret. Mind you, many adults are not exactly masters of this, but age does often make you a little bit better at spotting what's coming down the road or figuring out how to handle a given scenario.

You can impart some of that knowledge to teens, but you have to take your cues from them. Let them approach you if they have questions or want advice. If you sense that the do want help, but are unsure how to ask, or you want them to know what you can help them with, a simple "Hey, I went through/did X, so if you ever want to talk about, I'm happy to do so" will suffice. That lets them decide whether or not they want to hear your advice. Offering your advice in that way also establishes you as a safe, non-judgmental sounding board, someone who'll they'll feel comfortable opening up to rather than someone they're afraid will shove advice down their throat.

One of the best things you can do to assure your advice doesn't come across as condescending is to simply acknowledge the fact that your experiences are not universal. Your coming of age, the things you learned, experienced and felt as you went from teen to adult are not applicable to everyone. The world is also a different world than the one you grew up in. Technology is different, school is different, the political and social climate is different. Ergo, someone coming of age in this world is facing some things that you never dealt with and vice versa.

The other is to trust teens about their experiences and feelings. The vast majority of teens, when they speak about what they want or believe, are speaking honestly. If you approach conversations with them about their choices (and really, all conversations with them) in good faith, you'll have more open and honest communication⁠ and you'll know how to best help them when they ask for it.

It also helps to remember that most mistakes and consequences are survivable. They may be unpleasant, scary, and stressful, but there is a way through them. Young people need space to make their own decisions in part because doing so gives them the chance to screw up once and awhile. And when they screw up, they get the opportunity to learn how to recover from a mistake and move forward, becoming more knowledge about consequences than they were before. And if they have a chance to mess up while the adults in their life are still there to help, the consequences will be less dire.

Yes, the adolescent brain makes impulsive behavior more likely. But that doesn't mean that teens and emerging adults don't know what they want, who they are now, or what they're talking about. You can do a lot more to foster a supportive environment for, and have good relationships with, young people when you keep all of that in mind.

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