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Adolescence and the Agony of Decision-Making

There are good reasons why it's hard for adolescents to make up their minds.

The question was: “Why is decision-making so agonizing for our teenager? Why can’t she just make up her mind and stick to what she’s decided instead of going back and forth or looking for something else?”

The answer touches on the conflicted relationship between making choices and preserving freedom. You can’t do the first without reducing the second because when you choose one course of action, a host of alternative courses become closed off. And for a young person at an age when more freedom to grow is most important, this human reality is very hard to accept: All decisions reduce more freedom than they create.

It’s why some young people prefer to be dreamers rather than doers. At least they can keep the world of possibilities open to them. By committing to choose nothing and keeping their options (however unlikely) open, they feel freedom is still there for the taking. Or they may keep changing their minds and their direction to escape one set of choices for another, not sustaining any decision long enough to develop a clear trajectory in life. Dreams require no commitment, decisions do.

And there is nothing wrong with either of these alternatives, only consequences. Mostly what I see are young people wrestling with two demons of decision-making—indecision and ambivalence, overlapping issues, but slightly different. To illustrate the difficulty of decision-making during adolescence, here are two examples, both from high school.

Start with indecision over a hard choice. A high school junior really enjoys female company, as his extensive record of dating amply shows. Now he has met a female classmate who he likes more than any young woman he has known, and he doesn’t want to lose her special liking of him to some other guy. He thinks she would be willing to date him exclusively, if he was willing to do the same with her.

The problem is, to date her exclusively would mean not seeing other girls, and now he is locked in indecision because he is encountering a very painful part of human choice: Choosing is losing. He can’t make this commitment to her without sacrificing the social freedom he values highly. Because there is this price of commitment to be paid, he goes back and forth within himself weighing what is to be gained and what is to be lost. And the longer he wavers, unable to make up his mind, the more impatient he fears she will become. Decision-making can be really painful when one choice forecloses on a host of others.

Then there is the problem of ambivalence that is embedded in the process of growing up. Here the example concerns another high school junior who has been an outstanding athlete since the beginning of middle school and has loved her dad’s attention, enthusiasm, and support of her sports. Now she finds herself facing a very painful decision. “It’s not like I’m so good I have a great future in athletics. I don’t. It’s been a lot of fun, but now I’m ready to move on to something different in my life. Maybe get a part-time job after school with all the hours I used to spend at practice so I can make some spending and saving money.”

“So, what’s the problem,” I ask? That’s when she looks sad. “It’s my dad. He loves sports, and that’s been his major interest in me. Give them up, and I lose a lot of his attention. But since last year I’ve known that I was doing sports mostly for him and us. I want to keep him in my life. I don’t want him to drop out.” Now she is locked in a very painful ambivalence about pleasing herself and pleasing her dad. She can’t do both. She can’t claim new freedom of individuality and independence without sacrificing some of their old connection: Growing up is giving up.

So, what might you say to your adolescent about why decision-making can be so difficult? Consider explaining something like this.

Life is a one-way trip that’s partly charted by those choices that we make and those we decide not to make. We can’t go back and do them over. Choices cannot be unmade. As we proceed, we can always change our mind, changing our present and even our future, but never changing our past. We must build on the history of what we have and haven’t done.

And we must accept three limitations on decision-making.

First, free choice is never free because all choices come with consequences that set our course through life.

Second, there’s only life given to a customer; and it doesn’t last forever. Choosing decides how we spend our lifetime.

Third, there’s no guarantee our choices will get what we want. All choices create the risk of unpredictable consequences. Choosing is a gamble. And it’s our life we’re gambling with.

As for hard decisions, they offer costs and payoffs either way we choose. That’s why they’re difficult. Choosing is a compromise. We can’t get what we want without also giving up some of what we want and getting some of what we don’t want. So, to respect this mix we must take time to think both aspects out.

What not to do is let reluctance to make a hard decision result in letting an important choice point pass, and later looking back on that loss of opportunity with regret.

Probably for the best is following the advice of that old baseball guru, Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."