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Helping your teen learn to make good decisions

June 26, 2012

 I remember the day I graduated from high school: caps, gowns, diplomas, the whole deal.  Questions that I heard over and over were, “So…what are you going to do now?”  “Are you going to college?”  “Where?”  “What are you going to major in?”  “What are you going to do with a degree in THAT?!”

Teachers asked. Aunts and uncles asked. Friends’ parents asked. Even complete strangers asked. Decisions, decisions, decisions! Suddenly, it seemed like my whole life was supposed to be planned. It was like being interviewed, except they asked the same questions over and over again!

Graduation isn’t the only time that a teen has big decisions to make; all throughout their high school careers, they are regularly faced with choices regarding their classes, activities, future, jobs, friends, relationships, volunteer work and families. In today’s world, there is a great deal of pressure placed on adolescents to make smart, solid choices that will serve them well as they become adults.

Whether we realize it or not, this is asking a lot from most teens. Some of us may remember being in this position and feeling a bit overwhelmed, like I did. How was I supposed to know everything I was going to do with my life, when I was just barely turning 18? Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. We all know of someone, maybe ourselves, maybe our own child, or a neighbor who just KNEW.  “I’m going to FSU. I’m majoring in education. I want to be a first grade teacher.” Done.  Bravo!  Impressive!  However, for most of us, it just wasn’t and isn’t that simple.

All of this difficulty with teens and decision making? There’s a reason for it. There is scientific data that states that decision making is just not most teens’ strong point.   According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.”

“Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents’ brains function differently than adults when decision-making and problem solving. Their actions are guided more by the amygdala and less by the frontal cortex.”

When I think about the teens I’ve known, including myself way back when, this piece of information makes a lot of sense. This leads us, as the parents, caretakers, teachers, family members, to the question: “So, what do we do with them?”

Well, first of all, just because their brains aren’t quite yet functioning at an adult level doesn’t mean adolescents should just get a “free pass”. Our world just doesn’t work that way. It is still reasonable to expect that most teens can tell right from wrong and are able to make rational decisions (for the most part). I think of this data as a way to gain some insight as to why teens do what they do. It helps explain the impulsivity, the risk taking, and the emotional reactions to any number of situations that are often seen with teens.

Second, it helps all of us see that it’s not always a situation where a teen is just lazy, irresponsible or uncaring. The research states that there is a biological component here.  That being said, there are some things we can do to help adolescents navigate this part of life.

We know that it’s beneficial to hear them out, be there for them, help guide them in the directions that they seem most suited for. As a counselor, I try to do that with the teens that I work with. However, sometimes there’s only so much that talking can do. Years ago, I found a tool that I have used with many teens that helps them organize their thoughts and analyze their choices when they have a decision to make.  It’s very simple to do and easy to remember. It’s called “SODAS”.

SODAS stands for Situation, Options, Disadvantages, Advantages, Solution. Basically, there’s a decision to make, for example, a teen needs to get a summer job. She is offered a job at a fast food place and a job at a grocery store and she needs to decide which job to accept. To use the SODAS exercise, she would write out:

Situation: Don’t know which job to chose

Options: Burger King or Publix

Disadvantages: Burger King: High stress, never worked a cash register, don’t know anyone. Publix: it’s hot putting groceries in cars, lots of weekend hours.

Advantages: Burger King: Close to home, Publix: Friends work there

Solution: Publix, because friends are there

The summer job example is a simple one. However, you can see how this activity can easily become long and complicated. Something like this can help a teen get their thoughts together, clear their head, and look at everything on paper, right in front of them. I’ve used this activity with teens for many different situations: to help them learn if they are in a healthy relationship or not, to help them learn new ways to communicate with their families, to help them figure out what their interests are when dreaming of college majors, just to name a few.

SODAS is not a miracle cure, nor will it be the magical solution for a family with a typical impulsive, scatterbrained teen. However, for those moments in life where it’s important to sit down, think, and come up with a rational, smart decision, SODAS just might be the system to help an adolescent practice those developing skills.

How have you helped your teen learn to make good decisions? What’s worked for your kids?