What You Need to Know About Children’s Decision Making

Your child, whether a younger child or a teenager, is developing their decision-making skills. Decision-making is a higher-order brain function, which continues to develop into young adulthood. 

It is accurate to say that decision-making skills develop throughout your entire life. As you grow older, you continue to build more experiences and hone your skills to make decisions. 

As a parent, you might get frustrated with your kid. You see them making a choice that will lead them down the wrong road or lead them to hurt feelings. They might be dating the wrong person, hanging out with a bad crowd, not taking school seriously, playing video games all night instead of studying, and making other bad choices.

However, you can help your kids make better decisions when you understand where they are coming from and why they might be inclined to make poor choices as they grow up.

Feelings and Needs

Kids make their choices based on what is going to feel good right now. Impulse control can be challenging for young children and even teens. Teenagers go through many physical changes that lead to needing and wanting different things than they did as children.

For example, your teenager might decide to play video games all night before they take a big test. You have told them several times to study. Yet, each time you walk away from the room, you hear the gaming system start up again. 

Why is your kid not listening to you? Because studying doesn’t feel fun! Hitting the books will always lose out to video games. The stimulation fulfills many needs for a child, and with the temptation available to them, they will struggle to make the right choice for the long term in the presence of a short-term, highly engaging activity. 

What Is the Difference Between a Want and a Need?

Parents might say, “Well, my kid doesn’t need video games” — or social media or a phone or junk food or whatever else. You might assume they shouldn’t react so strongly when these things are taken away. These things are just wants. As a parent, you provide the needs, and kids should learn the difference.

To a child or a teenager, the difference between a want and a need does not exist. For example, when a child throws a tantrum in a grocery store over a candy, they feel they need the candy bar. Children will struggle to identify the difference between a need and a want. 

From your child’s perspective, a need and a want are the same things.

Impulse Control and Decision Making

Learning to control impulses will help your child make better decisions. Impulse control is linked to frustration tolerance, which is a person’s threshold for discomfort. 

Discomfort can exist in many forms — hunger, tiredness, boredom, etc. Young children cannot handle high levels of distress. As parents, you can help them meet their needs so that they experience low levels of discomfort. 

For example, you might give your child a candy bar to eat while grocery shopping. Or, you make sure that your child accompanies you on a full stomach to resist the temptation. As your child gets older, you start to make deals with them to earn a reward. “If you come grocery shopping with me and do not misbehave, you get to choose a candy bar when we leave.”

The basic idea doesn’t change as kids get older. In fact, it doesn’t change much for parents! You get a paycheck for doing a good job at work. You reward yourself with a break after doing chores at home. For teens and young adults, the decisions and rewards are “bigger,” but the fundamentals don’t change.

Controlling Emotions Is a Prerequisite for Decision-Making Skills

Teaching kids to control emotions and impulses is a prerequisite to making decisions. You cannot make effective decisions from a high emotional state. However, you need to be aware of your emotions to plan for the future (i.e., “Will moving into a bigger house feel right?” or “Will getting a graduate degree help me feel fulfilled?”)

For your kids, you can help them by stepping back and allowing them to experience consequences. For example, you might struggle to let your kid play video games all night. But are they in danger? No. Once they fail their test and face consequences, like retaking a course in the summer or just feeling embarrassed, you can help them connect the dots.

When your child feels the consequences of bad decisions, you might feel tempted to jump in with “I told you so!” or “You should have listened to me!” But, instead, you can ally with them, empathize with the negative consequences, and ask what their plan is to do better next time.

Children and teens will base most of their decisions on what feels good to them now. They will struggle to understand the difference between what they want and what they need. For kids, there is no difference between a want and a need. We often know better and just wish we could get them to make better choices. However, as parents, we need to realize that developing decision-making skills is a necessary process. Kids will make mistakes; however, we can ally ourselves with them, empathize, and empower them to find solutions to do better next time. For kids who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction or other dangerous behaviors, they might be fulfilling an unmet need. Understanding what that need is will help you understand why they continue to engage in these behaviors. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here for teens who struggle. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.

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