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How Teenagers Can Learn to Make Better Decisions

5 thinking patterns that commonly interfere with making good choices.

Key points

  • Teenagers can make poor choices because of their incomplete brain development and inexperience.
  • Teenagers often make choices while failing to consider the possible consequences of their actions.
  • A common reason that teenagers cite for not thinking properly is that they had become angry.
Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock
Source: Leah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock

Most teenagers work hard at making the right choices for themselves and their peers within a confusing world that involves dealing with their families, academics, peers, social media pressures, and figuring out their role in life. These tasks become even harder for teenagers because of their incomplete brain development, lack of experience, rebelliousness, and need to express their individuality even if this puts them in harm’s way.

In my clinical practice, I have encountered teenagers whose thought process fails to encompass essential information. Many of them would be aware of such information if they took the time to fully consider how to best respond to challenges they face. Common ways that teenagers think in an incomplete fashion include:

I didn’t think

A 16-year-old patient shoplifted a bottle of wine and went to the woods alone to drink it. When I asked him whether he realized that shoplifting is wrong, and that it is illegal for him to drink alcohol at his age he said that he knew those facts. So, I asked, “What were you thinking?”

He replied, “I didn’t think. I wanted to drink alcohol, so I took the bottle.”

Indeed, I have met numerous teenagers who explained that their poor behavior arose as a result of making choices while failing to consider the possible consequences of their actions. This can be related to poor impulse control or decision-making abilities that are under the purview of the frontal lobe of the brain, which does not fully develop until people are in their mid-20’s.

I was angry

A 14-year-old girl became angry at her boyfriend for cheating with her best friend. In order to hurt him she decided that night to cheat with his best male friend. When I asked her if she had thought out whether her actions helped the situation, she recognized that two wrongs do not make a right. However, she stated that her actions were the fault of her boyfriend, in that he made her angry.

A common reason that teenagers cite for not thinking properly is that they had become angry. I suggest to them that they are responsible for their choices, no matter the trigger, and even when they become angry. For example, just because someone says something that makes them angry, it does not justify an “over-the-top” reaction such as causing physical harm to themselves or others.

I didn’t do it

A 13-year-old boy had a history of arguing with his 10-year-old brother. We worked on ways that the 13-year-old could remain calm in dealing with his brother. During a few follow-up visits, the 13-year-old told me that he was dealing with his brother well. However, at each visit, his subconscious told me through finger motion (in which the movement of one finger indicated “yes” and another finger indicated “no”) that the brothers’ relationship remained poor.

At first, I thought the 13-year-old was lying when he told me that he was getting along well with his brother. However, as each time he did so he allowed his subconscious to contradict him, I came to believe that the patient was telling me the truth as he was consciously aware of it.

Thus, I learned that knowledge of inconvenient facts sometimes is suppressed. I believe this occurs in many younger patients. I have also observed apparently similar behavior in some adults, which can represent use of psychological defenses such as denial or repression.

I’ll do it better next time

A 15-year-old girl became a regular user of marijuana when she spent time with her friends. She said that she started smoking against her better judgment. At the same time, her grades began to slip, and she got into frequent arguments with her parents about her use of drugs and poor academic performance.

After prolonged counseling, the patient agreed that the use of marijuana was detrimental to her well-being and resolved to stop it. We talked about how her peers had influenced her to use marijuana in the first place, and that she would be better off finding another friend group. However, she liked her friends, and was worried that she would be unable to find new friends. Therefore, she resolved to continue spending time with her friends, but severely cut back on her use of marijuana.

Predictably, she was unable to follow-through on her intention to resist peer pressure. Thus, she made the common teenage mistake of doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

It won’t happen to me

A 17-year-old newly licensed driver was caught speeding by his parents who were monitoring his location through tracking his phone. He promised to avoid repeating this behavior, but it recurred.

When I spoke to this patient, he confided that he had driven under the influence of alcohol, and on three instances almost got involved in catastrophic car accidents. When I observed that he was placing his life in danger with his risky behavior, the patient acknowledged that this was true, but added that he was an excellent driver and therefore thought he was safe.

I responded that teenagers often minimize the risks of their behaviors, in part because they have not experienced adversity in their personal lives, and because they think they are invincible. Sometimes, teenagers choose ignore risks to fit in with their peers, to seek thrills, or to cope with stress.

Counseling Teenagers

When I counsel teenagers, I acknowledge that they are working on making the correct choices in their lives. However, I also point out to them that they are prone to making poor choices because of their incomplete brain development, inexperience, and difficulty in assessing the risks associated with some of their choices (Arain et al., 2013). Fortunately, most of the teenagers with whom I have spoken to in this fashion are open to the idea that they still have a ways to go before learning how to make good decisions consistently.

Further, I have told teenagers that I am continually impressed by the knowledge and wisdom of teenagers who carefully consider what they know before making decisions. Therefore, I suggest to them that they would benefit from taking some calming breaths before making important decisions to better consider alternative choices. Those who have learned to access their subconscious with hypnosis can also gain better insight into the best choice through that means.


Arain, M., et al. 2013. “Maturation of the adolescent brain.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 9:449–461.

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