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Responsible Decision Making

How can I help my child . . . ?

  • recognize and handle peer pressure?
  • build my child’s self-esteem and sense of self?
  • make safe, healthy, responsible choices?
  • see the impact their choices have on themselves and others?

What is a Tween?

As kids move from childhood into adolescence, they will be  making more and more choices on their own.  While they still need guidance from their parents, they begin to lean more towards their peer groups for guidance on what to do and what choices to make.  These choices may include difficult topics like smoking/vaping, alcohol, cheating, stealing and other things that can impact their life.  To help prevent middle schoolers from succumbing to peer pressure, the adults in their lives can help them develop skills for  responsible decision making skills.

According to CASEL (Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning) responsible decision making is “the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.”  This includes the capacity to consider safety (mental and physical) and think through the positive and negative outcomes of ones’ choices.  

Some key components of responsible decision making are:

  1. Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness
  2. Learning how to make a good judgment after analyzing information
  3. Thinking through the consequences of one’s actions
  4. Thinking about ways to solve personal and social problems
  5. Using critical thinking both inside and outside of the classroom
  6. Thinking about how one can contribute to their own well-being as well as their family’s and their communities.

Why it Matters

Learning how to make good decisions is important because middle schoolers will begin to face more pressure from peers and the outside world. Some studies suggest that some of the anxiety and depression that many children experience is due to their inability to think critically for themselves and make choices that positively affect their lives. In addition, when children have a chance to direct their life through their choices, it is an opportunity for growth and maturity. This skill is essential as they transition from childhood into adolescence and eventually into adulthood.

Check In:

Read through the following statements and identify which ones you feel your middle schooler is strong in and which ones may need to work on:

My child:

  • Thinks through how their decisions affect themselves and others
  • Feels comfortable making their own decisions on topics that relate to their life
  • Comes to me before and/or after making a decision
  • Can identify good or poor decisions
  • (with support) Brainstorms the pros and cons to a decision
  • (with support) Reflects on how their decisions affected them and others
  • (with support) Repairs.makes amends after making a decision that affects someone negatively
  • Recognizes how they can affect their own well-being
  • Recognizes how they can affect the well-being of those in their family
  • Recognizes how they can affect the well-being of their community

Connect & Communicate:

While it may be hard, allowing your middle schooler to gradually make more and more decisions on their own will help them to learn how their actions affect themselves and others. However, they still need your support and guidance, so it will be important to discuss things with them either before or after making an important decision.  

Start the Conversation:

Prior to making a decision

How will this impact others?
Is it worth it?
Why do you want to make this choice?
Was this a strong choice?
Will this help me?

One way to help children internalize the lessons learned from making a decision is to help them reflect.  You can do this by having them reflect on their choices using the following question or others that guide them towards realizing the impact has had. 

After making a decision

Why did you choose that? (in a non-blaming tone)
What could you have done differently?
Was that the best choice?  What might have been a better choice?

In addition to talking to your middle schooler and processing decisions, there are other steps parents and caregivers can take to help their child  have good judgment and decision making.  

Provide guidance and communicationTalk about what makes a situation or decision risky.  Set clear expectations for the types of decisions they should make in different situations 
Identify the problemHelp them explain the problem in their own words and talk about why it is challenging and/or risky.
Brainstorm pros and consTalk through the possible positive and negative outcomes on your teen, their peers, family members or on others in their community.
Create a plan to move forwardDiscuss ways of proceeding with making the decision.
Discuss potential difficult situationsTalk about problems that may arise and ways to get out of them.  Help them practice ways of refusing things like alcohol and smoking/vaping so they are prepared when the situation comes up.
Be availableMake sure they know they can call you if a real or perceived emergency comes up. Reassure them that you will not judge their behavior but that they can trust and confide in you. 
Teach about peer pressureExplain that doing the right thing is not always the popular thing.  Encourage them to find friends who share similar values and interests.
Promote good self-esteemMiddle schoolers are less likely to succumb to peer pressure if they have a strong sense of self.  Encourage them to develop their own values, opinions and to make choices on their own.  Also include them in decisions made by the family. 
Use literacy and media to discuss challenging situationsCharacters in books and TV shows often face conflict and challenging moments.  Use those examples to discuss ways of coping and making hard choices.


Activities for Building Self-Esteem:  Try one of these 6 activities to help your middle schooler develop a positive sense.

“What would you do?” Activity
One way to help coach your middle schooler  to  make hard decisions is to do this activity that uses scenarios.  The following will give you some ideas on where to start, but you can create any situation you would like to discuss with your child:

  • You  notice that a friend rarely eats and is constantly talking about her body and her weight.  You worry that she is not healthy.  What would you do?
  • Your friend tells you he wants to steal something from the store while you two are shopping.  What would you do?
  • You see someone teasing a classmate in the hall on the way to lunch..  You know this person from your classes and see that he is feeling scared.  What would you do?
  • There is a group of kids smoking on a corner a few blocks from school.  On your walk home from school they call you over and ask you if you want to vape or smoke a cigarette.  What would you do?
  • You know a friend has a copy of an exam you have to take in Math.  When she offers to give it to you, what would you do?

Family Contract
Some families choose to write up a contract that outlines rules and expectations for what to do or what to say when confronted with difficult decisions.  These topics could include cheating, stealing, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other high risk behaviors.  Instructions and a sample here:

Making a Difficult Decision Worksheet
This worksheet has a graphic organizer that walks children through a decision they have to make by thinking about all the options and outcomes.  They can use this on their own or with a trusted adult as a guide to help them make a good choice.

Contact & Collaborate:

Your teen’s school along with local community organizations and other parents are great places to connect with for additional ways to support your teen’s social development: 

  • Find out if your school has a program that helps students deal with peer pressure.
  • Help your child establish a connection with their guidance counselor. Set up a meeting or reach out by phone. Make sure your child feels comfortable going to their office when they have questions or concerns about decisions or peer pressure.
  • Join a local parent group on social media.
  • Stay connected to your child’s friends’ parents so that you can communicate about what is happening in their peer groups.
  • Have conversations with parents of your child’s friends.  Communicate with them your family’s rules and decision making style.  “When my child is at home we expect…..”

Continue Learning:

Talk it Out (website):  What are the 6 types of Peer  Pressure”

Child Mind Institute (website):  Helping Kids Make Decisions

PBS (video):  Home:  Responsible Decision Making

All Pro Dad (website): 10  Ways to Teach Your  Children to Make Wise Decisions

Wellspring Counseling (podcast):  Building Self Esteem

On Boys (podcast):  Middle School Matters

Tilted (podcast):  Expert Advice on Raising Confident Girls!

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