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  • Lori K Walters

What can you do when your Big Kid is making Terrible Decisions?

Footbridge crossing gentle stream amongst verdant willows

Several years ago, a friend and I went to Scotland. We wanted lots of freedom, so I said I’d rent a car– even though I’d never driven on the left-hand side of the road. It went well most of the time, camping and taking the back roads, but when we got into Edinburgh, I got stuck on the inside lane of a huge urban roundabout, my brain having a hard time figuring out how to drive clockwise and merge left.

It was super stressful. My friend was watching for an opening and, in a moment of panic, she reached for the steering wheel. I was shocked and enraged. I yelled, “Back off! I’m driving. Don’t ever do that again.”

That’s how teens feel when they are learning how to steer their own lives and make decisions and a parent keeps reaching for the wheel... “Back off!”

Parenting: you have control and then you don’t

By the time you've got teenagers, you’re very accustomed to making choices for what you think will be best for your kids – cloth or disposable, soccer or baseball, French or auto mechanics, Disneyland or Machu Picchu. It’s become a habit.

And then things shift and it's hard to let go. Really hard.

Some parents say they 'just can’t' (won't) step back from decision-making, their inner voices telling them they're not doing their job or losing control. Though the job has changed, they keep grabbing for the wheel… and causing more and more disconnection in the relationship.


Everyone wants to feel that their opinion is valued and for a decade of parenting, your opinion mattered – a lot.

And then it didn’t.

When you’ve got teens, your cred takes a nosedive. You feel it descending and you reach for something to hold onto to stay in their esteem and trust. And you worry that they’ll go ‘wrong’ without your input. It may be visions of worst-case scenarios. Or it may be less overt, your subconscious raising your heartbeat (or churning your belly or cranking your neck...) and telling you that you have to add your wisdom or they won’t be able to figure it out properly.

So, you make your comments.

On some level, your kid might get that you’re awkwardly figuring out how to step back… More likely, they are annoyed and distressed because they interpret your suggestions to mean that you don’t trust their judgement. Unfortunately, your efforts to be consulted and included result in more distance. 


I invite you take a moment and consider if you have crossed the line into controlling behaviour. I’m talking about preventing them from making a choice you don’t agree with. Are you refusing to lend them the car or telling them not to hang out with certain friends as a way of removing options so they can only choose what you want them to do? If so, you’re making their decisions instead of them. 

Parents who make their kids’ decisions end up raising kids who can't make decisions independently. Or struggle with huge anxiety when faced with choices. Or make reckless decisions to assert themselves. Or stay stuck in unhappy situations to avoid deciding.

Wanting to control your teen’s decisions is often due to thinking you know what would be best for them.  After 10 or 15 years of parenting them, this is so tempting to believe. But, sorry, unless you have a crystal ball, you absolutely don't know what’s best for them.

You may also try to control your teen’s decisions to avoid stress. Your kid makes suboptimal decisions (a.k.a. dumb stuff) and you're the one who has to pick them up from the principal’s office, the emergency room or the police station. In the stress and embarrassment, your subconscious decides, “I’ll do what it takes to avoid this next time.”

Here’s the thing: As long you've got teenagers and young adults, you definitely will be witnessing some choices backfiring, people getting hurt, money being lost, opportunities blown, etc. It's par for the course so, if you’re prone to anxiousness, that’s where you need to focus your efforts. Putting your foot on someone else's brakes or straining to grab the steering wheel is not going to make the ride better. Definitely not.


A Better Way: Learn how your young adult child goes about making decisions.

What are their Decision-making Criteria?

Consider this: When you choose a dessert, is flavour, appearance, temperature or aroma most important to you? Is it about tried-and-true comfort or adding something new to your experience? What are your criteria?

When it comes to connecting with your kids, I encourage you to notice when there’s an opportunity to bring their attention to the criteria that they use in making decisions. If they’re choosing new basketball shoes, for example, ask them what exactly they’re comparing. "Is it the sole or the ankle support that matters most to you? Which opinions have you heard that you value? Do these ones do something that the other ones don’t?" Help them get better at noticing what they’re weighing up.

And let them be privy to your criteria. “I think I’d like to work on her team because I’d feel challenged and more stimulated. At the same time, I’ve heard she’s really tough and I'm worried about being expected to work overtime.” Ask their opinion about what you’re measuring and if they think there are other things you could be paying attention to.


What's their Style?

Ask them how they decide. They might not know the answer at first. See if you can help them notice if their style is long deliberations or ‘trust and go for it’. Is it figuring it out mentally or checking their gut? Do they ping off friends, gather data or retreat inwards to decide? Help them see their How.

Discuss the differences and similarities in your styles. "Wow, I didn't even think of approaching it that way. Tell me about..." And, most importantly, allow yourself to register that their way isn't necessarily rash or wrong, just different. And still developing. 

Watch the Replays Together

Hindsight is also a great way to learn more about how they make choices:

  • Oh wow, it looks like that turned out well (or sucked) for you. How did you make that choice? Did you have a sense of how it might turn out?

  • When you chose ___, did you decide in the moment or had you been thinking about it? Which way works better for you? 

  • How do you know when you’ve made a good decision? Is there a certain feeling that tells you it was right? 

  • What do you think is your strength in decision-making? What do you still want to be able to do?

  • Play a game with hypothetical scenarios. "If you had a choice between X and Y, which would you choose?"

Let’s be clear, this isn’t just about helping them learn how they make decisions. Your job here is to also take it in. Learn about their ways and then, when important decisions arise, you’ll have more faith in the processes and self-awareness they’re developing. Less grabbing for the wheel and more trusting that, in their own way, they’ve got this.  

Notice Your Reactions

Notice your primary reactions. What has you reaching for the steering wheel - fear, a potential ‘told you so’ or someone else's opinion?

Notice where your judgements come up. If you don’t like how they make decisions, what does criticizing or undermining their approach do for you? What does it help you avoid - blame, embarrassment, helplessness, not being needed? Where does that feeling live in you?

Notice where your supportiveness runs out. What part of you shifts to doubting them? In what ways are you safer if you doubt?

Notice your discomfort when they do something differently and open yourself to learning. Believe me, understanding their ways of deciding will bring you more peace of mind and more readiness to let go of the wheel.

Empathy and understanding are the bridges that connect parents and teenagers.

It's not about control; it's about connection.

What bridges are you building these days?

 With you on the journey,


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