I’ve been thinking a lot about teenage behavior and what makes a kid become a good decision maker. In doing so, my mind keeps traveling back to high school.
It may be because my 12 year old son, Justin is just starting puberty and I’m seeing he won’t be my little Justy for much longer. And it seems my adorable scratchy voiced son Jake, age 10, is now going on 21 with his recently adopted “know it all” attitude. I think about them becoming teenagers and all the frightening things that relate.
Then I think about how I am raising my boys. Am I raising them to feel close enough with Dave and me to have good dialogue with us? Do they feel comfortable coming to us with questions about things they don’t understand? About things that happen just between kids? About struggles or insecurities they may feel? And dreams they might be creating in their minds? Am I raising my kids right?
I think as parents, we all have these questions. But my perspective is a bit different. You see, I didn’t have parents around when I was growing up.
Teenage Behavior – My Story
In high school, I didn’t attend class much. I averaged about 3 days a week between oversleeping in the morning and skipping out early to go do something meaningless I can’t remember.
For some of my teenage years, I lived alone with my brother (3 yrs older than me) with no adults in the house.
My dad died when I was 9. Heart disease, which runs in the family. When I was 13, My mom moved to a different state (long story) and didn’t want to uproot us from our hometown. She rented us a townhouse across the street from our high school and next to a super market. She visited every other weekend.
Hard to believe, right? I know. But it’s true.
I didn’t have any rules.
“Did you get all your homework done? Time to get ready for school!” Most kids dread these sentences. I would have loved hearing them. “What would you like for dinner?” would have been music to my ears.
With no structure given to me, I had to create my own.
Because I didn’t have my own parents to guide and teach me about the world, I needed to find other ways to learn. So at an early age, I became a really good observer.
One way I did this was by watching a lot of TV. One Day At a Time, The Facts of Life, The Cosby Show, Oprah. These were some of my favorites. Remember how the sitcoms would always play out a problem and then spell out the resolution and take aways at the end? I loved that. I learned about family dynamics. About social issues in our world. About day to day problems and related lessons.
Another way I learned was to observe the dynamics of my friends and their families.
I grew up in an affluent area in Potomac, Maryland just outside of Washington DC. Although my family didn’t have any money, most of my friends’ families did.
Naturally, I was invited over to their houses to hang out, to have dinner, for sleepovers. I was even invited to tag along on some family vacations.
I did a lot of observing. I watched how my friends interacted with their parents. How the parents treated their kids. I listened to the conversations at dinner. Interactions between the parents. How my friends perceived and responded to receiving discipline.
Teenage Behavior – Are Your Kids Good Decision Makers?
So imagine. What if your kids had all the freedom in the world? No boundaries. No rules. Would they make good decisions?
I’m not saying you should give this to your kids. But if you did, would you be the little invisible fairy on their shoulder whispering the right call?
I’m certainly not the authority in parenting. If anything, in many ways I am at a disadvantage. But growing up as an observer created a kind of “fly on the wall” situation for me.
I was able to have an objective viewpoint on what I saw, since I did not have my own impressions of family dynamics to cloud my mind.
There were many paths I could have taken as a teenager. But for me, my choices were about survival. I knew there was no one to catch me when I fell. So by watching the world around me, I chose (for the most part) paths which would lead to good outcomes.
To be certain of which paths these were, I followed my friends who had close families. I was lucky. I had a positive environment outside I could watch to know what was possible.
In observing my friends, I noticed a difference between my friends with good teenage behavior vs. the ones with bad behavior
My Friends Who Were Good Decision Makers had
- parents who seemed to have strong marriages
- parents who showed affection to each other as well as their kids
- parents who talked to their kids like adults, not children
- good dialogue with their parents
- attention from their parents
- the feeling of being respected by their parents
- the trust of their parents and autonomy
- parents who could apologize to their kids
- weren’t punished much (getting grounded)
- voluntarily spent a lot of time with their families
- self confidence
My Friends Who Were Bad Decision Makers had
- parents who were always working or one parent who was “absent” by divorce or being checked out
- parents who were not happy with themselves and generally cranky
- not much trust from parents and were watched like hawks
- a feeling of no control in their lives with parents who dicated how they spent most of their free time
- a lot of criticism from their parents
- parents who brushed family problems under the rug and did not talk honestly or about feelings
- many punishments and were grounded a lot
- issues with lack of self confidence
The Science Behind the Brain’s Decision Making
As teenagers, our brains are not yet fully developed to make the best decisions. The rate of development differs based on individual.
“The brain is growing and maturing but the last part of the brain to reach full maturity is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is where a majority of the executive functions are located. These functions include attention, the ability to regulate emotions, plan/organize, logic, reason, the ability to inhibit impulses (verbal/behavior), problem solving, ability to multi-task, and working memory.” See Ever Wonder Why Teens Make Such Bad Decisions? in link below for more info on this.
In other words, giving kids too much freedom is dangerous. Yet at the same time, having too many restrictions will make teenagers rebel.
It did take me a while to become a good decision maker. I remember a few times, trying to get friends to make poor decisions with me. My friend Carrie G. always made the right decisions. There became a point where I even saw her invisible angel parents on her shoulder! And then there was Eddie P. He and his mom were really close. He was always so respectful of people in general, but especially to women. I looked up to how he made good social decisions.
How do we create the little invisible angels on our kids’ shoulders?
Like with most difficult things, there is a fine line. I struggle with it everyday. But one thing is for sure. It starts with OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH OUR KIDS which are built over time. If we wait to really work on these relationships until they are teens, we will be too late.
So what do you think? Do you have teenagers? Or are you around them in your job or with family?
How has your childhood shaped how you parent your kids? Have you tried things that have backfired? And what has worked for you?
I know a lot of parents who would say “I know my kids. They wouldn’t do that,” when posed a question about a hypothetical decision in peer pressure situations. But do they really?
Remember when you were a teenager, some of the dumb decisions you made? We all did. We need to help decrease the percentage of these dumb decisions our children make.
As human beings, we are all in this together. Even if you don’t have kids, you may be that role model for a kid like me, who is “observing.” Let’s all work together to create good decision makers!
Below are a few sites with helpful information on decision making and teenage behavior
- Ever Wonder Why Teens Make Such Bad Decisions?
- Teen Index Barry County Org
- Parenting: Decisions Making
- The Science of Decision Making and Peer Pressure
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic! And if you liked this post, you may also like these posts on my blog- How to Help Your Kid Who Has Your Anxiety Gene, So Your Kids Want To Go To College and Technology In Our Kids’ Lives. I can’t wait to hear about your experiences.
I’m going to take a nap now. This drained a lot out of me! Always hard to dig deep.
Flavor Your Life with an Ounce of Salt. A lifestyle blog by Jen Oliak.