TeenWorldConfidential is privileged to have Stefanie Frank as a guest writer for our readers. Stefanie Frank’s graduate degree from New York University and her research and counseling work in countries all over the world has focused on the cross-section of neuroscience, mindfulness and social-emotional development, which she uses to help people uncover strength and power that can be used to manifest highly desirable outcomes in all aspects of life.
Using her expertise and research, she addresses the important topic of decision-making during the adolescent years. It is important to understand brain development to enable parents to effectively communicate with their child during these formative years.
To learn more, click on Wise Decision Making to enjoy her website and sign up for her informative and interesting articles. This piece is the first of three installments Ms. Frank is writing for TWC.
How do we help teens become wise decision makers?
Adolescence is about entering one of the most dangerous, scariest periods of our life –where we are no longer going to be protected and cared for.
It takes a lot of guts to leave the warmth and safety of the nest and enter the outside world.
In order to make this happen, teens need three things:
- a strong attraction to the outside world (peers, adventure, risks) .
- lack of thinking things through (otherwise they may rationalize that staying at home forever is better than leaving)
- the faith and confidence in their ability to make choices on their own, with the ability to survive even if this choice doesn’t turn out favorably.
Without these, we would never leave our parents. Our evolution as a species would stop.
Coincidentally, various research studies show that
- a part of the brain focused on thinking of future consequences is much less accessible until a person reaches the age of around 25.
- the rewards centers of the brain are at their most ‘open’ or sensitive than at any other time of life (this means that teens are totally driven by an urge to get immediate gratification from social approval, and other rewards like sugar, money and risk-taking)
- students who learn about growth mindsets and that failure is a part of the growth process have higher grit and perseverance than students who have not been exposed this information
(a great compilation of all of these studies is How to Teach Adolescents to Become Learners, from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research)
So how do we help teens with this? How do we help them not make stupid decisions?
By giving them controlled dress rehearsals about making independent decisions, so that they can begin to ‘feel their way’ through choices that lead them to positive consequences, AND ones that lead to negative ones.
To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Here’s an example…
A mother came in to see me about feeling disconnected and angry with her son. One of her biggest complaints was that he didn’t want to eat dinner with the family anymore and it drove her nuts.
She would yell for him to come to dinner and he would often ignore her or yell that he didn’t want to.
She kept threatening him with punishment if he didn’t join them. Eventually, he would come down, but then, not surprisingly, dinner would not be as enjoyable for her because he didn’t seem very happy to be there.
We decided to come up with a new plan.
I asked her to get clear on what the deeper meaning was behind eating dinner together. She said that she wanted to feel connected with him.
I asked her if the dinners they were having where she forced him to be there felt like she was getting the feeling of connectedness she was after. She replied that it wasn’t.
That was a turning point for her…
– she realized that it wasn’t the dinner she was after, it was the feeling of connection.
And it was up to her to figure out how to create that feeling inside of her,
instead of hoping someone else’s behavior would give her that feeling.
After that, we decided on our plan: she would call his name once for dinner. She would explain ahead of time that if he didn’t join them after that first announcement, it would be up to him to make his own dinner that evening.
So, on evening number one, she called his name to come down.
He didn’t come down.
So she served dinner to her husband and other son. As they were cleaning up, he came downstairs and went into the kitchen to ask what he could have for dinner. She said – “it’s up to you”. He made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She said he looked very pleased with himself. (She was furious on the inside, but decided to stick with the agreement and let him eat his sandwich in peace).
Night number two: another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Night number three, number four, number five: peanut butter, peanut butter, and more peanut butter.
At this point, she was ready to rip his head off and could not believe that he was choosing this over having dinner with her.
She said the plan wasn’t working.
We talked about it. She was still packing healthy lunches and giving him breakfast. I asked if she believed that eating these sandwiches for a week or two would harm his health.
She said, “no – but how the “f**” can he keep eating them?”
I explained that it was because it felt good for him to choose.
We agreed to keep going with our plan.
On night number 11, she was preparing dinner as she usually does, which happened to be lasagna. As she opened the oven door to check on the lasagna’s progress, she turned around, and there he was.
Standing in the kitchen before she had even called his name, there he was – asking if he could help set the table. (She did everything she could to act “cool”).
They had dinner that night, the whole family. Conversation was pleasant. She felt happy: this was the first time in a very long time that she knew he wanted to be there (even if it was just for the food). It felt good that she hadn’t forced or coerced or convinced.
Was it magical-fairy-tale-land-of-family-dinners from that point on? Heck no. He didn’t come to dinner every evening. Many evenings, he made his own sandwich. But that night was a personal, inner victory for her. She told me that she felt powerful in her feelings of surrender. And every once in a while, he did eat with them, and she savored it every time.
As children get older, they teach us about surrendering our control over another’s experience.
They force us to learn how to focus on our own feelings of well-being because they show us that as much as we want someone to do what we think they should do, ultimately what we are really going after is a feeling – and they are not responsible for that part of us.
To truly help teens become lifelong wise decision-makers we need to:
- give them opportunities to make choices where we let them ‘feel out’ the natural consequences and
- model what it looks like to make choices that feel good and right to us
To thrive in the outside world, young people need to have an unshakeable belief in their ability to choose what will truly be in their best interest.
When we try to protect them too much from making mistakes and try to get them to avoid feeling uncomfortable at all costs, or when we try to force them into activities that are to serve how we want to feel…
…we rob them of the feeling they get when they use their gut and inner knowing to make a decision that feels right to them, and we rob them of the confidence that they will survive even if they make a decision that doesn’t turn out the way they expect.
Our role at this ‘risky’ time of life for them is to help young people get in touch with, as often as possible, their own inner decision-maker.