When Your Child Can’t Decide
How to help kids who struggle to make decisions.
Posted Jun 28, 2019
Should they sign up for basketball or the school play? What are they going to wear tomorrow? What do they want for breakfast? Which friend do they want to invite over? Which flavor of ice cream do they want to eat?
Life is full of small and big decisions, but for some children, trying to decide feels painfully difficult. “I don’t know! I can’t decide!” they wail. Or, they might make a choice but quickly reverse their decision. “The red one! No, the blue one! No, the red one!” The stress of trying to decide might even lead to tears.
As parents, it’s tempting to skip all of this drama and decide for our kids. But learning to make decisions is a life skill that kids can get better at with practice. With every decision, children construct their identity, declaring, “This is what matters to me. This is who I am or want to be—at least for now.” We don’t want to steal their opportunity to do this important work.
How to help kids decide
There are various ways that parents can help children make up their minds without deciding for them. Presenting only two options makes a choice less overwhelming. Teaching them strategies such as flipping a coin, saying eenie-meenie-minie-mo, or listing pros and cons might help.
For bigger decisions, one of my favorite strategies is to repeatedly poll myself by asking, “If I had to decide right now, which would it be?” I can poll myself again, a few minutes later, and change my mind, but over time, as I keep posing the question, I usually find a pattern emerges showing that I lean more in one direction than another.
Simply acknowledging our children’s feelings about making decisions can be very comforting when they’re anxious about making a choice. You could say, “It’s hard to choose just one,” or “You’re feeling torn between those two options” or “You’re not sure what to do.” We can also help kids understand more about decision-making.
Seven myths about decision-making
Decision-making is harder when kids have mistaken beliefs about decisions. In my book, Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem, I describe seven myths that get in the way of children making up their minds. See if your child can explain why these myths are not true.
Myth 1: I must be 100% certain in order to make a decision.
Truth: Nothing is 100% certain. Feelings and circumstances can change. Something might happen that we don’t anticipate. Usually, decisions are our best guess, given the information available at the time.
Myth 2: In order to make a decision, I must analyze things endlessly.
Truth: If the decision is important, thinking about and discussing options can be useful, but at some point, more pondering can become just a delaying tactic and more fretting won’t necessarily lead to a better decision.
Myth 3: Making a decision should be easy (and I’m stupid if I can’t decide).
Truth: Sometimes it’s easy to decide; sometimes it isn’t. When the stakes are higher, it can feel harder to commit to a decision, but the best way to become better at making decisions is to practice.
Myth 4: I must be completely happy with my choice.
Truth: Choosing one option means letting go of other options. It’s common and completely normal to feel a twinge of loss about the options we don’t choose or to have mixed feelings about a decision.
Myth 5: If I make the wrong choice, it will be unbearable.
Truth: Making a wrong choice is disappointing. Regret can be painful, but it’s survivable. When a decision turns out to be wrong, for whatever reason, we learn something about ourselves or our circumstances, and this can help guide future decisions.
Myth 6: A perfect choice exists, and I can’t decide until I’ve figured out what it is.
Truth: Most decisions are compromises. There are costs and benefits to every option. What seems right now may not be right later. That’s OK. We can adjust if we need to do so.
Myth 7: If I keep thinking and avoid deciding, I won’t make a bad choice.
Truth: Not deciding is a choice. It’s a choice to avoid taking action, refuse commitment, and react passively to life rather than holding the steering wheel. It’s a choice to stay mired in uncertainty and allow opportunities to pass. Not deciding is rarely a positive choice. It’s living by default.
Let your child decide
When we trust our kids to make decisions, we not only give them practice with an important life skill, we also help them develop resilience. They'll learn what they like, but they'll also discover—when they inevitably make some choices they regret—that a bad choice isn't the end of the story. They can move in a different direction with the next choice.