Have you witnessed your teen in the midst of decision-making anxiety? They may have been struggling to make a choice about anything from whether or not they should go to the school dance, to what they wanted to eat for dinner, to which courses to take next semester, to how they wanted to dress for school. Indecision can arise over things small and seemingly irrelevant, hugely impactful, and anywhere in between.
As a parent, you may have felt powerless. First, you may have thought, “I did the ‘right’ thing by providing options.” Then, “I want my child to feel empowered to make their own choices!” Finally, you arrived at, “So why are they stuck? And what do I do to help?” Perhaps you added some friendly pressure, reminding them that they had 15 minutes to decide before you’d have to leave without them, hoping this would help them reach a decision. Yet, they were too tangled up in questions, concerns, and doubts to reach a clear answer.
In any decision-making opportunity, your teen has much to consider. They are simultaneously considering their own ideas, beliefs about what peers expect from them, thoughts about family norms, and images from media. Meanwhile, their prefrontal cotex— the center of rational and critical thinking– is still developing, making executive functioning a more difficult mental task than it is for adults. Additionally, they’re likely worried about upcoming state-testing and the hours of homework ahead of them— or whatever other external stressor they’ve recently come face to face with.
Whew… No wonder your teen feels stuck from time to time!
How You Can Help
As a parent, you also want to see your teen thriving, not stuck in anxious cycles of indecision. Here are 5 Ways to Help Your Teen Make an Intentional Decision when they feel stuck:
1. Reflect what your teen is saying back to them. If they say, “I don’t know what to do! I just can’t decide,” literally, in a compassionate, caring tone, repeat this back, “You don’t know what to do and you can’t decide.” If they elaborate, again, repeat back what you hear. After a few back and forths, notice if your teen’s energy has shifted or relaxed. This type of active listening and validation can help young people sort through their indecision piece by piece.
2. Invite your teen to draw or write about their options out. They may like try pro/con charts, Venn Diagrams, images, or journal entries, for example. As teens use words or images to process, new ideas, insights, and clarity may come to the surface. Support them by asking questions such as, ‘What are you noticing about the options?” or “Which option feels most comforting/exciting/safe?”
3. Encourage a break from the decision, as time permits. Self-care and grounding strategies can help your teen gain clarity. Getting outside of the decision for a bit can allow them to return refreshed. This article has tons of strategies that range from movement, to breath work, to reading.
4. Brainstorm additional ideas or share personal experiences with permission. If you have faced a similar decision or see other options your teen hasn’t mentioned, ask if they are open to your input. If they agree, you might share additional considerations. Alternatively, you may tell a brief story that explains your personal process. You may wish to include details such as the following: fears or obstacles you faced; strategies you used to reach a decision; and shifts or noticings you felt through the decision-making process.
5. Normalize the act of asking for help. Inside AND outside of the context of a tough decision, talk about the language they can use to do this. You might ask, “How do you think you can ask for help the next time you feel stuck making a decision?” Together, come up with a go-to phrase such as, “I need help making this decision because I feel ______.”
After the Decision is Made
After your teen has come to a decision, allow them to take the steps required to follow through. Depending on the nature of the decision, you may even invite your teen to role-play or narrate the steps that following through with their decision entails. Give them the time and space to take action on their own and to explore their agency. Equally important, let them know that you are there for encouragement and support them along the way, you are there in case they need to change plans and come back to the drawing board.
Next, invite your teen to reflect on their decision. After they’ve had time to put their decision out into the world, you may engage them with questions such as, “What was making this decision like for you?” “What were the results of your decision?” or “How did you feel after taking the steps you decided on?” Inviting teens to reflect on their unique decision-making process helps them build their critical-thinking muscles, while also bolstering their sense of empowerment and control in their lives.