Before we talk about decision-making, let me give you the world’s shortest neurology lesson:

  • The part of the brain that is involved in self-control, reasoning, and decision-making, the pre-frontal cortex, does not fully develop until about the mid-20’s. This is the part of the brain that says, “This is a really dumb idea. Don’t do it.”
  • The amygdala within the limbic system (in the middle of your brain) is responsible for emotions. It develops before the prefrontal cortex does. This is the part that says “I’m really angry.”

When you add it up….

The underdeveloped prefrontal cortex plus the developed amygdala


lots of strong emotions and not always a lot of self-control

leading to…

questionable decision-making skills at times.

This does not mean adolescents ALWAYS make bad decisions. Of course not! It merely means they are still physiologically developing and could use a little help learning how to make decisions and control emotions.

Another thought…through childhood and adolescence, the pathways in the brain that develop and stick around are the ones they use. If they don’t use them, they sort of disappear. Therefore, encourage your kids to read – or read to them. Encourage sports, museum visits, board games, and creative learning opportunities so those pathways in the brain stick around, not the couch-potato pathways.

Want to know more? Listen to Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore as she gives an interesting TedTalk about adolescent brain development.

Okay, now that we are all brain experts, let’s talk about decision-making.

There are formulas we use to teach students in health education classes that show how to make good decisions. It seems odd that formulas would be written about this, much less that a person even needs to be taught how to make good decisions, but it is not a skill that a person has at birth. As the brain develops cognitively, it begins to make connections about decisions and the outcomes that follow. There are other biological processes involved as well, but that’s not the point of this particular writing, so just trust me on that one.

The model frequently used in schools and healthcare facilities is the DECIDE model. This model is used with some variations. Essentially, these are the steps:

D: Define the problem
E: Explore the alternatives
C: Consider the consequences
I: Identify your values
D: Decide and take action
E: Evaluate the results and make changes

We often go through these steps without even realizing it. Consider a decision you have made lately. How did you come up with your final decision? I am guessing you went through most of these steps without even realizing it.

For our adolescents, however….

Because this is a learned skill, practicing will help get their thought processes wired up. It’s easy to start with simple decisions such as nutritional choices, but then eventually move on to heavier issues such as where to attend college, which friends to spend time with, and their sexual health. They can analyze their thoughts about initiating a sexual relationship, using condoms, remaining abstinent, etc. by utilizing the DECIDE model.

Encourage the young person in your life to think through different scenarios before they find themselves in certain situations. This will help them with rehearsing refusal skills as well.

  • Simply write the DECIDE acronym on a piece of paper.
  • Talk about what each letter – or step – represents.
  • Present them with a scenario.
  • Have them write each step out and ponder actions and consequences.

If your household is like a humming train station and finding time to sit and write stuff out probably won’t happen, just have a conversation in the car. Talk through the different steps, then give your adolescent some different scenarios you can think through together. When they are faced with similar situations in ‘real life’, they will have a mental tool in which to refer.

Use these scenarios to help your child think through potential sticky situations:

  • You have a big test in the morning. However your favorite band is playing tonight and you were able to obtain free tickets.
  • You are riding in a car with friends, when all of a sudden one of them lights up a joint.
  • Your boyfriend/girlfriend wants to have sex. However, you don’t feel you are ready yet. But if you don’t, they say they will leave you.
  • You and your significant other are sexually active. Your partner does not want to use condoms, even though condoms are the best way to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy, STIs, and HIV (other than abstinence).
  • Talk through decisions/situations they are dealing with right now. I am sure there are several.

D: Define: Have them define (or identify) the problem.

E: Explore: Talk about the different options available. Focus on the better choices.

C: Consider: What are the pros and cons – the consequences – of each option?

I: Identify: Talk about your values – what is important to you? Do you value education? Do you value your friendships? Do you value your sports or clubs? Do you value your health? How will your decision affect your value system?

D: Decide: What is the decision? Act on it.

E: Evaluate: How’d it go? After your decision has played out, evaluate the results. If you don’t like the outcome, go back and explore your options and their consequences, and try again!

Remind the young person in your life that we all make dumb decisions and mistakes. Learning from our mistakes is how we grow as people and how we learn to deal with life’s curve balls. We just want our children to have the mental tools to figure out how to make the best decisions they can by thinking things through a little bit.