Barriers to Good Decision Making in Adolescence and Practical Approaches that Can Make a Difference

Dr. Sharp will provide a brief overview of the changes in cognition and brain development associated with adolescence and how these changes affect adolescent decision making. The focus will be on how cognitive and brain development impacts decision making around risk taking behaviors. A facilitated small group discussion will center on how we can act as resources for adolescents to help them gain confidence and learn skills to become better decision makers. The workshop will conclude with a presentation of practical strategies for enhancing adolescent decision making.


  • Introduction
  • Process of decision making
  • Influences on adolescent decision making
  • Unique features of the adolescent brain and implications for decision making
  • Practical approaches to enhancing decision making in adolescence

Webinar Evaluation

Presentation Handouts



Q: Does the brain develop differently when an adolescent has a mental illness?
Mental illness does impact the brain and may impact things like the dopamine receptors. As adolescents develop, their dopamine receptors shrink. This normal development process can exacerbate things for individuals with mental illness and may put adolescents at greater risk for anxiety or severe depression.

Q: So many of our youth with mental illness are involved with juvenile justice system; often for making "bad" decisions. Do you know if there is any work going on to educate juvenile justice workers, the courts, or lawyers?
The Department of Justice has issued a brief on the adolescent brain. Education for the juvenile justice system would ideally focus on positive stimulation and controlling impulsivity. This may include trying to provide adolescent with a different outlet through more positive youth development and positive programming.

Q: Does discipline of adolescents truly help them when it relates to decision making?
Adolescents can be influenced by discipline and reinforced by positive reinforcement. Discipline is appropriate, but what may be more influential than punishment (e.g., being grounded), is positive youth development. A greater impact can come from engaging the positive aspects of the youth. Tune them into ways that they can use their time in healthy ways as a channel for their energy. It is important to make sure that even those adolescents who are problematic have adults to turn to as a safety net.

Q: Is medication effective in helping adolescents manage impulsivity? It seems medication is often prescribed without teaching youth how to manage their own feelings.
There are some concerns about the long-term use of any medication that alters levels of serotonin or dopamine in brains that are still undergoing development. Sometimes medication may be appropriate for adolescents with impulsivity issues, but it is best paired with education around strategies/skills for how to deal with those feelings of impulsivity. We still have much to learn about what medication does to the adolescent brain.

Q: When decisions are made for the adolescent, does that hinder their ability to make decisions or hinder their ability to control their impulses?
Adolescents need autonomy of decision making when it is safe and appropriate. Research has been done related to the adolescent bedroom which found that when adolescents are given 100% control over their bedrooms they were more likely to talk to their parents and talk through risky decisions. If we as adults are making all of their decisions, they are not getting autonomy or experience making decisions. When there are decisions that cannot be left to the adolescents, talk through them with the adolescent to give them additional experience with decision making.

Q: What parenting styles are best to help an adolescent make decisions?
Research is in favor of the authoritative parenting style (being warm and supportive but holding firm expectations). This style helps adolescents learn to make their own decisions and transitions well into a classroom or youth serving program. Authoritarian parenting (when parents have all of the control) is the worst for teaching decision making because the adolescent never gets to practice making decisions. Even in adulthood, youth who grew up under an authoritarian parenting style have less ability to make decisions and are more easily influenced by others.

Q: How would one help a 17 year old who is not engaging in risky behaviors, but doesn’t seem to be able to see long term consequences for decisions?
Patience – this is at least in part because of their developmental state. These capacities are developing as the part of the brain that allows for long term understanding develops. In most cases it will be a natural progression.


Additional Resources

Like us on Facebook

Get Updates