- “I can’t wait to go to college. I’m going to apply to as many of the top colleges as I can.”
- “I’m applying to five top colleges and a couple of backup choices just in case.”
- “I think I can get into one of the State Universities. Those other universities are too competitive.
- “It’s so expensive to go to a university, so I’m going to go to community college for a couple of years first and then transfer.”
- “I’m going to work for a year and save money for going to a university.”
- “I’ve been going to school for thirteen years. I need a break before starting college.
- I want to do some traveling before committing to another four years of school. I don’t even want to think about colleges or applying for a few months!”
- “I’m not even sure I want to go to college. There’s so much I can do without a college education.”
- “Maybe I should go to a vocational school. Why take a bunch of stupid history or English classes that I’m not interested in? I can get a certification to work in the field I’m interested in.”
- “My uncle did fine working through the ranks in construction. Now he’s a general contractor and makes good money.”
- “The Army has early enlistment… and there’s a program for them to pay for college.”
- “Stop bothering me! I don’t know!”
- “I’m definitely going to major in computer science or electrical engineering.”
- “I think Business is what I should do.”
- “A liberal arts education will give me the broad background to all kinds of options.”
- “I need to figure out what the best undergraduate major is for getting into law school.”
- “I think I’ll take some science type major if the university doesn’t have a specific pre-med track for getting into medical school.”
- “Psychology is a good major for maybe a career in education… or human services.”
- “Psychology is a nothing degree. It really doesn’t count for anything in getting a real job.”
- “I like PoliSci. It’s good background for getting into public service or politics.”
- “I thinking of an Economics and Business double major. After a bit of work experience, then I’d be ready to go for a MBA… or the CIA as an economic analyst.”
- “I have no idea what I will major in!”
- “Something in engineering is going to my major. What kind of engineering? Uh… I don’t know.”
- “Maybe I should work for a while first, and… or work and take some community college classes to figure out what to major in… or join the Army.”
That was not the thoughts of twelve teenagers but the pondering of ONE teenager! Decisions change as the wind shifts. From uncertain and certainty about post high school plans, to deciding on college but then becoming confused and all over the place about the next decision, adolescent difficulty making and keeping to decisions is not uncommon.
Day to Day Dramas
Such indecisiveness may not only be about something as serious as college, a major, and/or a career choice, but something more common in a series of day-to-day dramas. “I’m going to wear the red blouse with the white trim tomorrow. I look really good in it.” Five minutes later… “That red blouse is too plain for the reception. I won’t look very cute wearing that. The black top with the shiny purple collar and the lavender embroidery will make me look more elegant.” Ten minutes later… “Black is too conservative. EVERYONE will be wearing black. It’s so passé! My white statin top with the wide collar and gold buttons are fancy but ladylike. I’m a lady! That’s it… perfect!” The next night an hour before time to leave, “I don’t have ANYTHING to wear!”
“Yes, No… Never mind… Absolutely… Ummm… I don’t know… That’s it for sure… Yep… Nah… Maybe… YES! NO!… Whatever… Definitely… Duh… I changed my mind… No way… 100%… STOP BUGGING ME! I’ll tell you when I know when I’ve decided… OK, I’ve decided… But…” Teenagers can be so adamant about what they want and what they believe in. Assertive and loud… and in your face! And then, change their minds in the next instant… what!? This is not transitory teenage insanity, but actually a relatively normal developmental phase. When they were younger, their experience of the world revolved around questions such as, “Is this OK?” or “Is this good or is this bad?” As kids, they looked to and deferred to adults, especially parents for a decision for just about everything. “Is it too hot?” “Is this ok to touch?” “Can I have that?” The only decision in a sense was to ask or not ask or to do it anyway whatever the consequences. Adults that give principles for making a decision instead of a decisive yes or no- go or stop can actually confuse young children and promote anxiety. Kids often don’t want to know why doing this or that is a good or bad idea, the social and communal ramifications of either decision, or the cultural, political, or religious history underlying the situation! All they want to know if they will get into trouble with you if they do or don’t.
Suggesting the “Right” Choice
Sometimes, adults make it even more anxiety provoking with hints, clues, and suggestions for kids to make the “right” choice, yet ostensively leave to the kids to make the decision. Since children are often very literal, they may actually believe that the choice is really up to them! Presented in such a fashion, aren’t adults saying that children have sufficient wisdom to make good choices? And that the adult trusts their intellectual, moral, emotional, and social processes to make decisions? And that the adult will be pleased whatever the decision fruit of that cognitive cultivation bears? Yeah, right! Upon making their decision (regardless of the decision, it is deemed developmentally acceptable as their learning processes), children may have adults then punitively pounce on or shaming them if they make the “wrong” choice- the incorrect, undesirable, or implicitly not recommended choice. In what may be a more damaging response style, adults may be more nuanced or subtle in their feedback. “You sure that’s what you want to do? Why don’t you think about it a little more,” may be offered with cloying sweetness to an icy undertone. The discrepancy between voiced overt words of acceptance and the non-verbal communications of disapproval can be very confusing to children.
Gradually, adults pull back from making decisions for children. Part of that is the developmental expectation as children getting older and moving into adolescence would internalize not only what is prudent behavior or not, but also the principles and values to judge what are appropriate healthy choices or not. With this expectation and hopefully, its reality with maturity, children and especially, teenagers are allowed to make their own decisions for more and more of their life circumstances. From a more functional perspective, some parents defer to or give up trying to manage their pre-teens and teenagers simply because it doesn’t work! As they grow older, formerly dependent children become more and more independent of parental approval and more concerned with fitting in and peer approval if not peer pressure. They are more mobile- less dependent on parents for getting around. Their world view formerly focused around the household, neighborhood, and the school expands exponentially particularly with access to cell phones and the internet, especially social media. What was assumed or given as unassailable becomes compellingly relative. It depends! Ironically, adults who have trying throughout teenagers’ childhood to teach them nuance, qualifications, and exceptions to rules and standards see them become steeped in extreme relativism! Adults get confronted with self-righteously argumentative retorts AND stunning reversals of positions. It is not only that teenagers can be so defiant and aggressive, but also flipping back and forth among SEVERAL contradictory defiant and aggressive stances!
Absolved from Consequences of Choice
A very significant reason for this indecisiveness was that as children, not only did adults usually guide (or force) them into making the most prudent decisions, adults also sometimes absolved them from the severe consequences of really bad choices. Adults would intervene, make up, or otherwise mitigate a lot of poor choices since they did not want their darlings to suffer physical, emotional, or social pain. They caught them when they were falling. They interrupted tantrums or preventing the lashing out that would have harmed relationships. Or, they sent them to their rooms rather than allow them to rage over perceived injustices. Or, encouraged or forced them to make apologies and amends before they got ostracized or fell into self-righteous self-pity. No longer when becoming teenagers to adhere to adult restrictions or standards, they want to make their own choices- often choices that have immediate if not also harsh personal consequences. As teenagers they come to realize that being independent and seizing sole responsibility for choices also means not only gaining the benefits of good choices but also suffering the consequences of poor decisions. In other words, it’s for REAL! Forewarned for years that their choices will determine their options and opportunities for success or failure for the rest of their lives- not just for Now, but for Not Now-Later, the future, decisions can become terrifying.
Each decision or choice can feel like a critical fork in the road that can potentially take one down a horrific path of turmoil and failure or a trail to abundance and fulfillment… right NOW! Make the correct choice- or else! Every decision becomes a crisis of life and death symbolically. Back and forth, back and forth… decisions about seeming minor issues become overwhelming. Cognitive development enabling the ability to consider many and heretofore unforeseen possibilities make the world so much more complicated that the Yes or No- Good or Bad choices of childhood. Good may not be good enough, or has side effects or unforeseen consequences. Bad may be unattractive now, but lead to formative struggles and important experiences and skills.
Teenagers may have a sense or belief in the finality of decisions. On the cusp of adulthood, many teenagers have yet to learn that every decision increases some options and decreases others, but not necessarily ensures nor eliminates re-addressing the same issues, choices, and decisions. One can decide to go to a college, spend a year or more there, gain or not earn a degree, AND decide to go to another college, shift ones major, and try another career. One can decide to take one direction at a fork in the road, knowing that there will be other forks and decisions to make later. There is not just one fork- or only one decision for glory or doom, but many further choices to make. Many of which one cannot anticipate or see until well down some path. Or, that one can reverse course and go back to a fork and do it differently! Teenagers can be helped tremendously by guiding them that they have many opportunities to adapt, change, or fine-tune their lives with future choices. No decision has to be final; that few if any choices prove to be fatal, and most critically that they will most probably be ok in the end. After all, millions of people have survived the journey and many forks in their roads- including their caring adults (parents and teachers, for example) who used to be teenagers once. They (we) survived, so they can too. Teenagers learn from the stories and models of resiliency, including the stupid childhood, adolescent, AND adult mistakes adults had made on their (our) journeys that they (we) survived! Failing to tell these stories of poor choices, struggle, AND survival create the illusion that adults took all the correct paths during childhood and adolescence at their personal forks in their life journeys. And teenagers will become paralyzed with indecisiveness trying to replicate perfection that never occurred.
You Won’t Die!
Tell teenagers, “You won’t die if you make a mistake! (That is, unless you do something REALLY stupid or dangerous!).” “It won’t be fun, but the only way to find out if a choice is a good choice is to make it and see how it goes. Pretty simple… if it goes well due in part to adaptions along the way, or if it goes badly despite attempted corrections, then you will know in retrospect that it was or wasn’t a great decision. And after-the-fact is the only way you can really tell if your choice was successful.” In other words, like anyone else teenagers can only make the best decision they can based on what they know, feel, or think at any given time. Experiences from Not Now-Before can give lessons and guidance for the decision Now, as one does the best he or she can do to anticipate Not Now-Later. The recommendation of making lots of mistakes or trying out a lot of things is the accrual of experiences (from Not Now-Before) that create wisdom Now and for the future- Not Now-Later. Try, see what happens, learn, and try again adjustments as make the best sense in the moment anticipating the best that you can. The most important decisions may be:
- I can decide that this decision is not absolute.
- I accept that I cannot predict the future and anticipate all possibilities.
- I can decide that this decision is good enough- it does not have to be a perfect decision.
- I can decide to make adjustments or new decisions later based on what happens after this decision.
- I can decide to accept what happens next (if I can’t, what happens next will still happen!).
- I accept the risk inherent in any decision, because…
- I can survive being wrong. I can survive being wrong, because…
- I get to try again and again as long as I can.
Essentially, you are prompting teenagers to make a decision- the best they can at the time, and live with it to see what happens. And then try again. Remind them that the worse decision that will really mess them up is to quit or give up… or to not make a decision. The next blog will discuss how poor versus healthy parenting affect the cognitive and emotional development that facilitates the ability to adequately examine situations and come to solid logical decisions.