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Decision-making -- a risky business for teens

By Carrie Ann Olson

Research has shown the more we practice making decisions the better we become at it. Learning how to make decisions and to be able to defend them helps one to be independent and responsible -- a part of growing up.

As we look at teen decision making, one has to consider the development of the brain during adolescence. Teens' brains are going through a period of intense development, and they naturally seek out risky, novel experiences and peer approval. As a result, decision making can be less than rational.

It's during this period of development that brain wave activity is busiest in the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for advanced reasoning: cause and effect, planning, managing impulses, etc. Teens strengthen their thinking about thinking at this time. Along with this development comes actions like teens being quick to point out inconsistencies between adults' words and actions, and viewing conflicts from different perspectives. For example, is a clean room a personal choice or a reflection of morals? It's also during this time that social and emotional influences become stronger and develop earlier than the cognitive abilities such as logical reasoning.

A new book called The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard explains that teens get personal higher rewards, or an "increased rush" when they follow those social and emotional influences for risk-taking versus "thinking" through a situation logically.

So what does this mean for programming for teens? We know that making good decisions is related to cognitive development so we need to help teens develop reasoning and thinking skills. And we know that learning to make good decisions is necessary for transition to adulthood, so we need to focus on creating safe places for risk-taking and practicing making decisions.

Youth development programs such as 4-H, in which participants are engaged in the leadership of the program, help youth to practice safe decision making. The 4-H consumer decision making judging program is a specific decision-making program that teaches youth to make decisions around topics that regularly make up our daily decisions; food and nutrition, clothing & textiles, personal care, entertainment and recreation and personal finance.

In what other ways can we as youth workers capitalize on teens' prime motivators of peer influence and novelty-seeking to encourage teens to be better decision makers?

-- Carrie Ann Olson
Extension educator & associate Extension professor, educational design & development

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  1. Decision making is a huge life skill that teens need the opportunity to try out. With a 17 year old son I realize how hard it is sometimes to give them the leeway, but we need to get over the idea that adults prescribe things for youth all the time. I love the Quality Matters Toolkit on Voice and Engagement from the Youth Work Institute that provides a list on page 3 of "Traditional Models of Youth Voice" and "New Models of Youth Voice". This diagram promotes offering opportunities for youth to act as facilitators, researchers, mentors, organizers, advocates, evaluators, trainers, paid staff, decision makers, activity leaders, policy makers as planners. Wow, what a list of potential opportunities! Check out the Youth Work Institute Website on Quality if you want to see in more detail how this notion may look for your organization! Thanks for the great post, Carrie!

  2. Thanks Margo for sharing a great list of ways to incorporate decision making into youth programming! I'm sure you would also agree that teens are able to apply some of the most creative ideas when given decision making opportunities.


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