Social Pressures on Children and Youth; Encouraging Critical Thinking in Decision-Making

Recently, parents were worried about their 12-year-old child who was easily persuaded by others to make poor choices. This resulted in their child crashing a party that didn’t have parental supervision. As well, the child agreed to go with their friend to a mall instead of getting back to school after lunch. They wound up in the office with a suspension for leaving school unsupervised. I asked these concerned parents what their best hopes were for their child. They responded that they wanted their child to make wise choices and to reflect on an issue before acting on it. They wanted their child to make decisions independently from their peers, and to assert themselves in social situations.

Promoting Critical Thinking
We continued to talk about the importance of supporting children to think critically in the moment. A reflective approach to decision-making may not come naturally to most children, as abstract reasoning typically develops in early adulthood. However, children often engage in explorative play, which is very inquiry-based. During play, they experiment with a variety of learning tasks as they make assumptions, take safe risks and safely try again. Children also get to know themselves during play – conceptually formulating what they like, what they want, what is relevant to them, and how to refine tasks and skills. We can help our children to use these critical thinking skills in conversations that explore how they can effectively handle social situations. This relationspace can be open, non-judgmental and free of expectations. In this safe space, children process their thoughts and ideas, and parents help their children recognize the many options available in decision-making.

As they learn to approach social situations with a reflective stance, children begin to see that there are many ways in which to interpret a situation and to act on it. They also begin to understand the value of taking the time they need to think before they act. Remember that while they certainly benefit from our guidance, our children also need to know that we trust and believe in their ability to learn how to make meaningful decisions on their own. As we respect their ability to sort out a situation responsibly and resourcefully, they learn to trust themselves and their own choices.

Parent as Sounding Board
Help your children to explore their own ideas by giving them opportunities to share their thoughts and experiences with you. You will find that they creatively generate opinions as you act as a sounding board for them (e.g., listening with interest and without interruption, asking questions to help them clarify their thinking). Show them that you value their thought process by asking how they might address a challenging situation. Rather than a conversation aimed at immediate solutions, you can explore your child’s ideas. Free of expectation, these informal interactions allow you to safely disagree with each other. As you model this supportive relationspace, your children will be honest with you. They will also come to appreciate their agency in addressing situations and making challenging decisions in the moment. Over time, your children will develop a positive self-concept, and the confidence to express it.

The Value of Learning
Informal conversations that are free of rules and barriers to entry, encourage learning. When we value learning with our children, we teach them that while successes are great, mistakes provide useful learning opportunities. You can explore a learning conversation with your child by asking one or any of the following open-ended questions. Try to avoid answering the questions. Give your children the time and space to contemplate their answers:
What can you learn from this situation/issue/problem?
What do you think about it?
What do you feel about it?
What are your best hopes?
Suppose things had been better, what might be different?
If you were to try again, what might you do?
How can you try differently?
What might be the impact of your actions?
When the situation is over, how will you feel?
How will you know?
What else?

Resourcefulness in Decision-Making
To acquire different perspectives on a decision, your children can ask you and other trustworthy connections (e.g., a grandparent, a relative, a teacher or close family friend). While a peer may seem trustworthy, they may not have sufficient knowledge or experience. Your children can also explore the topic by reading about it from a variety of different sources. Talk with them about the need to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate resources. For example, visit the library and select appropriate books together. When searching online, URL’s that begin with EDU or GOV lead to verified educational or government sources, whereas social media platforms are unverified.

Exploring Emotions in Decision-Making
Children are often ruled by their emotions as they make decisions in the moment. For example, taking an uncalculated risk may feel worthwhile to a child who is worried about being isolated from the group who is crashing the party. Parents can teach children that extreme emotions challenge our ability to think clearly. Rather than to act spontaneously when in a heightened emotional state, we can connect with our emotions. Encourage your children to find a verbal or visual cue (e.g., a color) that they can instantly call upon, and that will help them to stop and assess how they’re feeling. How are these feelings showing up in their bodies (throbbing temples, clenching of fists, stomachache, sweating, etc.)? By taking a few deep breaths, your child will settle down and be able to think more clearly. Emotional self-regulation allows children to manage themselves in the moment, and can delay or defer a bad decision.

Help your children to express their emotions verbally. Practice emotional vocabulary (e.g., I’m feeling stressed to have to make a decision right away. I’m feeling sad about saying ‘no’, but I need to think about this. I don’t want to disappoint you but this makes me uncomfortable. I’m afraid that if I say ‘no’ you won’t want to hang out with me anymore). When children model these types of responses with confidence, their self-awareness encourages others to listen, and to reflect on their own behavior.

Concluding Thought
Even though it may often appear to children that there are few options during challenging social situations, they can prepare for these experiences during informal and reflective conversations with you. With your support, they explore what will work for them. They equip themselves with useful strategies. They develop a deeper understanding of who they are and how they can take charge of their relationships with others.

Thank you for reading this newsletter. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. As well, let me know if you have any particular topics of interest regarding relationships in general, with children, in families and in schools. You can also subscribe to this newsletter on LinkedIn.