Why Does My Teenager Make Such Bad Decisions?

Why Does my Teenager Make Such Bad Decisions? by Sharon Martin LCSW

Are you wondering why your teenager makes such bad decisions? Well, you aren’t alone! Teenagers are not known for their good decision making skills. Let’s face it, most of us did some pretty stupid stuff when we were teens, too. There are many things that work against teens when it comes to decision making:

  • Lack of life experience
  • Belief they are invincible
  • Impulsivity and thrill seeking
  • Boredom and lots of free time
  • Failure to consider consequences
  • Strong need to be accepted by peers
Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

The part of the brain that is responsible for future planning and regulating mood is called the prefrontal cortex. This is the last area of the brain to develop with development continuing into the early to mid-20’s. The prefrontal cortex helps quell impulsive and risk taking behaviors. It allows us to think and plan for the future rather than acting on emotion. At the same time, as the prefrontal cortex develops, it allows for greater awareness of one’s self in the world and to imagine how others perceive you. This contributes to teens’ strong need to fit in and do what their friends are doing (peer pressure).

The amygdala, or reptilian brain, makes sure we survive by telling us to eat, sleep, reproduce, etc. It is also responsible for the fight or flight response.  The amygdala is fully developed by adolescence and teens rely strongly on the amygdala for decision making. Teens are highly emotional and act on impulse and in ways that lead to immediate pleasure.  Because they’re using the amygdala, they have strong urges, but limited ability to control them.

You’re probably beginning to see how brain development leads to the perfect storm in adolescence. Teens are heavily influenced by emotions in decision making because the rational part of their brain is still developing. When calm, teens can access the rational part of their brains. But emotions often win out. Therefore, the primitive amygdala often leads decision making. This can be confusing (and maybe infuriating) for parents because usually their teen knows what the appropriate and expected behaviors are. But they truly have difficulty thinking ahead when emotions are activated (such as in stressful situations or around peers).

Believe me, even though I understand this, it is still extremely frustrating when my teenagers make bad choices (in fact this post is inspired by my own child’s poor decision).  Here are a few things that may help:

  • Have realistic expectations.
  • Remember learning from poor choices is a normal and important part of growing up.
  • Set limits and give them a clear sense of right and wrong until they are better able to do these things themselves.
  • Give them time to make decisions. They need more time to make rational decisions than most adults.
  • Stay calm. Don’t get pulled into your teens high level of reactivity and emotion.

If you found this article Why Does my Teenager Make Such Bad Decisions? helpful, please share with your friends. And we’d always love to hear your feedback in the comments. Best wishes on your parenting journey.



Disclaimer: I have no formal training in neurobiology. This is a lay person’s understanding of brain development.

Sharon Martin, a licensed counselor and psychotherapist in Northern California, specializes in helping adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and self-criticism. She has a private psychotherapy practice in CA where she is available for online counseling. Sharon is also the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and write the blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today.