Making safer choices

Decision making 

Decision making during the teenage years can be tricky. 

There are lots of developmental changes happening which means it not only takes longer to access the parts of the brain involved in thinking things through, but friends and peers play a greater role in making choices than at any other time of life. There are other influences too: 

  • Hormonal changes that occur during puberty.
  • Social changes such as moving school, or starting at college, university or a new job.
  • External pressures such as exams and home life. 
  • Increased independence which can introduce new social groups and experiences. 

The teenage years can be very intense, which can be exciting and positive, but also presents challenges. 


The adolescent brain

Between the ages of around 10 years and the mid-20s, the brain goes through significant neurological changes: basically, it gets rewired. This is really important as it is preparation for adulthood – being able to function independently away from caregivers such as parents – but it can feel a tumultuous time! The first part of the brain that matures is the limbic system, which is primarily concerned with emotions. The last part of the brain to mature and connect securely is the prefrontal cortex, which has many important advanced or executive functions such as reasoning, thinking through consequences, impulse control, and problem-solving. This mismatch between the fully developed limbic system and the still maturing prefrontal cortex means that during adolescence, a quick decision can be an emotional rather than rational one, particularly if peers and risk are involved.  


Give yourself time!

Because it takes a bit longer to access the pre-frontal cortex during adolescence, a really simple thing to do to help make more reasoned decisions is to take some time. This not only helps in terms of thinking things through, but also to understand where other people are coming from; responding to non-verbal messages such as facial expressions can be more difficult to do accurately during adolescence (for example, it can be easy to misinterpret someone’s concern as anger). Taking some time also gives space to look at the bigger picture, and fully understand the context. 


Social risk 

Adolescent brains are more responsive to the pleasure chemical dopamine, which means teenagers get a much greater sense of reward than adults, particularly if the situation involves people of their own age. This “heightened social sensitivity” as it is known means that teenagers are much more likely to take risks when they are with their friends than when on their own: this is referred to as “social risk”.  Imagine a situation in which pills are being offered around: clearly this is risky as there is no way of knowing what is in them, but not saying yes increases the risk of not being accepted by the group – it can feel a difficult balancing act. This is why asking “what would I do if I was on my own?” is a wise thing to do in a situation involving any kind of risk, as it frees someone up mentally to think through what feels right for them outside the social context. 


Laci Green (3m) – The teen brain: under construction


Peer pressure

Peer pressure is a powerful factor during adolescence, and it can take many shapes and forms: 

  • badgering someone to do something. 
  • running someone down for the choices they make.
  • a shift in expectation of what is considered “normal”.
  • a belief that others want you to do something. 

Some of these are can be really subtle, but it is important to remember that if you feel uncomfortable with something, probably others do too. That’s why voicing this feeling – whether by saying “I don’t want to” or even “I’m not sure about this” – can release others to express how they feel too. Your peers are going through the same changes in their brains as you, so no matter how confident and socially successful they appear, they are trying to work out if they are OK with the people around them just as you are. 


Dealing with peer pressure

The following videos contain some practical tips and advice on managing peer pressure.

One simple skill to overcome peer pressure (4.5m)

How to deal: peer pressure (4m)

How not to drink: dealing with peer pressure (5m) 


In summary

  • Take your time to make decisions – delaying tactics can be helpful such as saying “I need to think about it”. 
  • Have reasons ready, such as “it’s against my religion”, “it could interfere with the sport I do”, “I like being in control” or even “I don’t want to”. If you have thought about what you could say beforehand, you are more likely to be able to say it when on the spot. 
  • Avoid situations and groups if you think you could get into difficulties. 
  • Tap into your core values by asking yourself “what would I do if I was on my own?”. 
  • Remember the power of one – if you say no, you empower others to do the same if they want to.