Building Decision Making Skills
Allowing kids to make decisions can help grow their independence. It can also give them confidence to handle new situations. Because decision making helps develop a lot of executive functioning skills. And once these skills are developed, they can be transferred to new situations. This not only leads to more confidence and better decision making, but it also reduces anxiety.
When can you start letting your kid make decisions?
It's good to start letting kids make decisions early on in life. This way they can practice on things with small consequences. And have time to build up their skills. This allows them to be ready for the added challenge that comes during the teenage years; when peer pressure gets layered in along with bigger consequences.
When kids are young, they need more structure and firm rules. But even young kids can build up their decision making skills.
How do you begin?
Give your child a choice between 2 things within your set boundaries. This is a good way to introduce decision making, problem solving and how to learn from mistakes. And this can begin when they are in the toddler years.
To be clear, these are not choices that will interfere with your parenting or their safety. Providing your child with choices is not the same as permissive parenting. Nor are you letting them participate in big decisions such as deciding which preschool they want to go to.
Permissive parents do not enforce many limits, rules or discipline. While permissive parents are usually very loving, the lack of accountability and structure can impact children in a negative way. Studies show children raised by permissive parents tend to feel insecure, make poor decisions later in life, lack self-discipline and struggle more socially and emotionally.
Once you are in the habit of giving your child small choices, add in follow up questions. Like, what made you choose that and would you choose that again. This helps children develop critical thinking skills as well as reflection.
You can also use decision making to help grow empathy in your child. When you give your child a choice, after they make their choice ask them how does your choice impact others? Or how might others feel about your decision? This helps them learn to think about another person’s perspective. And how to think about others when making decisions.
As your child gets into the preteen years, it’s time to begin shifting your parenting style. From providing lots of firm rules to more flexibility and negotiable rules. These new rules are ones that should integrate your child’s decision making skills.
The rule is that chores need to be completed by the end of the week. Leave the decision making up to your child about how and when they get them done. If your child struggles or makes a poor choice, such as leaving all chores until the last 4 hours of the week, your job is to become a guide. Help your child realize what went wrong and how they think it can go better the next time. Mistakes and bad decisions should be expected in the beginning.
Telling your child what decision they should have made does not build executive functioning skills. Nor does removing future opportunities to make decisions. Instead, you want to help your child recognize any mistakes they have made. Not from a critical or shaming perspective, but from one of curiosity and problem solving. By acting as their guide and asking questions, it helps develop their problem solving skills. And that's how they learn to make better decisions in the future.
Of course still expect some poor decisions. And the need to re-learn lessons as they continue to figure things out. This is normal for the age and the stage.
When Your Child is Struggling
If your child is consistently making poor decisions, pull back on letting your child have more flexibility. Repeated poor decisions are a sign that more growth and supports are needed. In those cases, go back to more structure. But continue to offer flexibility from time to time. This way you can gauge how your child is growing in their decision making skills.
The Teenage Years
In the teenage years, kids should be more and more involved in the decisions that impact them. Let your teenager take the lead in the discussions and in trying to problem solve. It is great to express your viewpoint as a parent because your guidance in these years is still critical. Just be careful that you are not dominating the conversation. Or removing the opportunity to problem solve from your teenager.
Your job as the parent to a teen is to help them see all the different options and consequences. The best approach is to ask questions to help guide your teen to think about the possibilities. So if your teen wants to go to a party and you are worried about drugs and alcohol being present, instead of forbidding them to go, ask them if you go and there are drugs or alcohol present what is your plan? Do you know what to do if the person you are going with has too much to drink? What kinds of things are you going to do to keep yourself safe?
Teenagers don't respond well to being told what to do. Impulse control is still being developed and peer pressure can have a lot of weight in their actions. But by asking them questions that make them think ahead of time about their decisions, they are better prepared to make a good decision when the time comes. Additionally, they will be more confident in their choice because it will feel familiar.
And sometimes your teen will surprise you and make the decision you wanted them to make all on their own. Because they had the chance to figure it out for themselves. This will give them confidence in handling situations and allow them to do better in new situations. Because the skills they are developing can be transferred.
What if I haven’t been giving my child a chance to make decisions?
Don’t worry, it is never too late to begin developing these decision making skills in your child or teen. You can begin to give your child more decision making opportunities at any time. But you still want to walk them through the above stages. You don’t have to spend years doing it, but the length of time should allow them to master each step.
Decision making is a skill. One that needs to be built upon in order to learn how to do it well. So if you have a teenager and have been the one making most of the decisions, don’t throw them into the deep end by skipping straight to the teenage stage. Just because their age matches doesn’t mean they have the skill set yet.
We can’t expect them to make good decisions if we don’t first give them the right tools.
If there haven’t been enough chances to practice, your child may feel more anxious about making decisions. Or try to avoid it all together. Because as they get older, the consequences that come with decision making tend to be bigger. And if avoided, this can lead to more significant issues later in life, like failure to launch, anxiety or depression.
So help your child succeed through practice and going through these stages. Because everyone makes more mistakes in the beginning as they are learning a new skill. And decision making is no exception.
No matter the age of your child, start thinking about how you can help grow your child’s decision making skills and support their independence.