But everybody’s doin' it...
Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Family Social Science
Revised June 2015.
Teens make decisions based on two important questions:
- What do my friends think?
- Will it be fun?
Your teen’s idea of fun and his perceptions of the level of risk involved determine whether or not he will participate in risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol, doing drugs, or having unprotected sex. For example, your teen is probably well aware that getting drunk carries many risks. But to a teenager, having fun and being with friends at the coolest party on Saturday night is more important than the risks.
What does she see in her friends?
During the teenage years, friends provide care, respect, and trust. Teens choose their friends because of similar interests or to make themselves more popular. Your child’s friends are going through the same kinds of things as your teen. They understand each other so they can talk about their problems and figure out ways to solve them together.
What if his friends drink or do drugs?
Teens do not drink or use drugs only because their friends do. Abusing alcohol or drugs is a sign of a problem more serious than peer pressure. There are ways parents can help prevent their teen from drinking alcohol or using drugs. For example, research has found that when parents monitor their teen’s behavior, the teen is less likely to participate in problem behaviors, and more likely to choose friends who show behaviors that parents like.
What would make her do that?
Teens’ decisions may not be irrational or stupid. Your teen might just be considering different consequences, and place different a different values and likelihood on a consequence than you would in the same situation. Let’s take the example of having unprotected sex.
- Your teen might identify different consequences of the behavior than you. For you, having unprotected sex might lead to pregnancy or a disease. For your teen, not having sex might mean losing her boyfriend.
- Your teen may place a different value on potential consequences than you. Losing the boyfriend she is in love with seems like the worst thing in the world.
- Your teen may view the likelihood of a particular consequence differently than you. Teens often feel very strongly that “It won’t happen to me.”
What can I do to help my teen make better decisions?
At some point, every teenager is going to have to make decisions about alcohol, sex, and drugs. Talking with your teen lets her know how you feel about these issues and increases the likelihood that she will share your values. It is also a way to help her understand what the consequences of her actions are, and that these consequences are very real. Listen to your teen. She has questions and concerns that are different from yours. Talking lets you discuss both of your concerns and helps eliminate fighting.
Tips for talking with your teenager about risk taking
- Discuss what makes a reasonable risk. You and your teen may have different ideas of what is reasonable. Talk about what might happen if your teen decides to have a beer at a party.
- Ask your teen to consider, “What are the potential benefits and consequences of this behavior?” Role-play different possibilities recognizing kids’ and parents’ views. For example, you may see no benefits to teenage sex, while your daughter desperately wants her boyfriend to say he loves her.
- Keep in mind that risk taking can be a positive thing. It can give your teenager confidence in his abilities, teach him to trust his own judgment, and help him face failure and frustration.
Can decision-making be taught?
You can teach your teenager to make good decisions on her own by giving her responsibility, information, and guidance. The first step is recognizing how people solve problems and remembering that we all learn to solve problems better by making mistakes.
Here is one problem-solving process you might try:
- Identify the problem.
- Figure out the cause of the problem.
- Decide on your goal.
- Identify what resources you could use to reach your goal.
- Identify as many possible solutions as you can. List the pros and cons of each.
- Choose your best option and carry it out.
- Think about the outcome and revise your plan for the next time, if necessary.
There is a trade-off between doing what one knows is right and being accepted by peers. Although your teen may have gotten drunk once or dyed his hair blue, keep in mind what he could be doing and what he has chosen not to do!
Brechwald, W. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Beyond homophily: A decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 166–185.
Crockett, L. J., & Silbereisen, R. K. (Eds.). (2000). Negotiating adolescence in times of social change. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Steinberg, L. (2004). The 10 basic principles of good parenting. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity: Lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
van Hoorn, J., van Dijk, E., Meuwese, R., Rieffe, C., & Crone, E. A. (2016). Peer influence on prosocial behavior in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 90–100.
KidsHealth.org — Where to go for information you can trust about teens that's free of "doctor speak." In English and Spanish.
ParentFurther: A search institute resource for families — An online resource to help families strengthen relationships through shared activities.For parents — Boys Town — Boys Town is home to parenting experts who have developed a wealth of original content over the years that is available for free in their “For Parents” section.