From getting beyond drunk at a friend’s party, to some seriously questionable outfit choices, teenagers often do things that seem outlandishly stupid. But we now know why: the areas of the brain that control decision-making don’t fully develop until early adulthood.
A teen’s developing brain places them at greater risk of being reactive in their decision-making, and less able to consider the consequences of their choices. So how can parents help their teenagers learn and apply good decision-making skills?
Most children demonstrate an understanding of “right” and “wrong” behaviour from an early age. As language develops, children are able to give clear reasons as to why certain behaviours are undesirable.
So it’s reasonable to expect a 15-year-old to know they should not steal. But they are less adept at choosing not to steal in the presence of coaxing peers whom they wish to impress.
The difference between what teenagers know and what they choose can be explained in terms of “cold” and “hot” situations. Cold situations are choices made during times of low emotional arousal. During these periods, teenagers are able to make well-reasoned and rational decisions.
Hot situations refer to choices during periods of high emotional arousal (feeling excited, anxious, or upset).
The impact of emotional arousal on decision-making explains why teenagers might discuss, for example, the negative consequences associated with drinking and drug-taking, but then engage in those very behaviours when with friends.
Brain studies show the frontal lobe – which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control, sensation-seeking, emotional responses and consequential thinking – does not finish developing until our early-to-mid 20s.
The relationship between brain development and the risk of making poor choices, particularly during hot situations, is referred to as psychosocial maturity.
Research has shown youth aged 12 to 17 years are significantly less psychosocially mature than 18 to 23 years who are also less psychosocially mature than adults (24 and older).
Overall, teenagers’ psychosocial immaturity makes them more likely to:
Gradual increases in autonomy and practice with independent decision-making are vital for teenagers to become confident adults with good emotional and social well-being. Although parents know poor choices are part of becoming an adult, most want to protect their teenager from making very serious, or illegal, choices.
Good decision-making skills can be learned, and there are six key steps parents can employ to encourage better teen decision-making:
Dr James McCue is the Criminology and Justice Practicum Coordinator, a lecturer, researcher and higher degrees supervisor (Psychology/Criminology) in the School of Arts and Humanities.
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