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When Children Make Poor Decisions

The older our kids get, the more we worry about the choices they are making and the effects of these decisions on their future lives. It’s a fine balance to find – how do we let our children learn independence and responsibility while also protecting them from the potentially painful consequences of their mistakes? Read on to learn about the factors that play into children’s tendency to engage in risky behavior and get tips for helping them make good choices.  

Why Do Kids Act Out? 

Whether it’s a toddler kicking and screaming in the middle of the grocery store or a teenager sneaking out past curfew, children test boundaries as they figure out who they are and what they can do in the world. Their brains are still developing, and they’re trying to establish their identities, values, and beliefs in relation to their environment.  

Impulse control 

The cognitive ability to stop and think in the moment usually starts to develop in late teen years and keeps improving throughout the early twenties. This means that most children do not yet have the level of self-awareness and impulse control present in adults. They are more prone to be impulsive even if they know that something is going to get them in trouble. When questioned about a wrongdoing, a child or early teen is likely to admit that they aren’t even sure why they did it – they just wanted to, even though they knew they shouldn’t.  


Kids are highly impressionable because they are learning about the world around them, and it’s shaping their budding identities. Social media and friends have a massive impact on them and their choices. Movies, TV shows, and video games can all be part of shaping children’s value systems. Parents and family members contribute to kids’ decision-making by both modeling and setting down structure – we’ll cover many of the positive ways to do this in this blog.  

Even the type of habitat children and teens grow up in can influence their ability to make good choices and engage in risky behaviors. For instance, if you live in a big city, there are always exciting things going on, so there is temptation to be out in public constantly. The cities don’t sleep, causing children to not want to sleep – they want to explore, sometimes not so safely. On the flip side, kids in rural areas might have the opposite stimulant. If there’s nothing to do, they’re going to find something to do: a way to explore, to have experiences – good or bad.  

What Can Parents Do? 

Parents and guardians are very strong formative forces in children’s development, even though it may seem less and less so as kids grow up and become more independent. Our parenting decisions directly affect our children’s decision-making skills. Here are some dos and don’ts to consider: 

Early Start vs Late Expectations 

The ability to make good choices starts developing in early childhood. If a child is not allowed to explore the world and make simple mistakes early on, they cannot be expected to choose wisely and understand consequences as a teenager. So, let your toddlers and babies be curious: let them put objects in their mouth to realize it’s gross, and let them run to learn about falling. They need to explore and learn things for themselves. They need to learn decision-making.  

As kids grow into pre-pubescence, seek out opportunities to let them go into supervised environments without you: extracurriculars, sports, summer camp, etc. That way, when they are teenagers, they will be able to navigate less structured spaces safely, and you will be able to trust them. 

Artificial vs. Authentic Consequences 

Always communicate ‘the why’ behind your demands, and base it on real-world implications. For example, if a teen is asking why they cannot stay out past curfew, you may give them some artificial reasons: 

Or, you could explain it in a realistic, authentic manner: 

Discussing authentic, natural consequences models your thinking and helps kids learn decision-making skills.  

Questions vs. Boundaries 

If you are concerned that your child may be about to make a bad choice, try not to set strict boundaries. Instead, plant a bug in their ear by asking questions and gently voicing your opinion. For example:  

This approach both opens a conversation and pushes your child to independently evaluate the situation.  

Understand vs Reprimand 

When children have already engaged in risky behavior or made a poor choice, try your best to come to them with understanding rather than reprimand. Conversation can be the most meaningful form of “punishment.” 

Kids cannot support adult emotions, so saying something like “I’m disappointed in you” is not constructive. Set aside your own feelings on the situation and make the conversation about them. They need support and guidance, not more punishment. Yelling or reprimanding might push them to repeat unwanted actions: “I’m going to get in trouble anyway, so I might as well do whatever I want.” 

Ask the difficult questions: 

And be prepared to help them to work through the tough answers.  

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support! 

About the Expert 

Elizabeth Bowen is a Licensed Master Social Worker in New York, supporting children and young adults experiencing behavioral, attention, and mental health issues. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a focus in Trauma Informed Care, Systems Theory, Behavioral Theory, and Attachment Theory. Elizabeth is TF-CBT certified and has worked in inpatient, outpatient and telehealth therapy settings.