Young woman wearing a backpack standing looking confused, scratching her had, and has question mark signs around her head

What To Do When Your Teen Makes Irrational Decisions

By Yshai Boussi, LPC, author of Staying Connected with Your Teen

Janet and Jeff are sixteen-year-old twins. They get along well, get good grades, and are involved in sports and clubs year-round. Their parents felt comfortable leaving them home alone for the weekend while they went out of town to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. The kids promised that they would just have a few close friends over, but definitely not a party.

By now, you surely know where this is going. These otherwise brilliant and “good” kids thought they could get away with a party by turning off the video on the Ring camera attached to the house. Unfortunately, they didn’t disable the audio microphone. So, mom and dad got to spend their anniversary Saturday night listening to loud teenagers flippantly talk about drinking, drugs, crude jokes, and other language that they will never be able to unhear.

Why Intelligent Teens Make Irrational Choices

The neurotransmitter dopamine has received a lot of attention over the last few years. Dopamine gets released when our brain anticipates or experiences something rewarding or pleasurable.

Delicious food, sex, a good workout, time with a close friend, or achieving a challenging goal are common experiences that release dopamine.

But adolescents experience dopamine differently than do children or adults. Adolescents release more dopamine than we do, while their baseline is lower than ours. So, the spike of dopamine they get is often intense!

The other factor that plays into the boneheaded decisions many smart teens make has to do with their prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the part of their brain behind their forehead that’s undergoing a vast remodel. An important role of the PFC is to function as our emotional brake system. When it’s hitting on all cylinders, we have more self-control, and an improved ability to delay gratification and manage our emotions.

But the adolescent PFC is predictably unpredictable.

So, an immature PFC that makes them more impulsive—combined with floods of dopamine in anticipation of experiences that might be fun—is a cocktail that sets up adolescents to screw up.

Knowing that nice and intelligent kids are wired to take risks and act impulsively, how do we help them get through this often turbulent period safely?

Below are five tips to help your teenager bridge the gap between what they know and what they do.

Five Things You Can Do to Help

1. Praise your teen’s effort, determination, kindness, and problem-solving.

The same rush of dopamine that comes in response to technology, drugs, alcohol, and sex is experienced in response to social rewards (praise and recognition) as well. If you’re going through a particularly hard time with your teen, it may be difficult to find these positive traits, but they’re there and you just have to work hard to find them. They may not show it, but your teen does care what you think of them.

2. Limit technology, but don’t take it away.

Adolescents need technology to connect socially, learn, and become healthy digital citizens of the future. Unfortunately, tech companies are in the business of eliciting dopamine. Teens and tweens are ripe targets, and the designers know it. While delaying certain apps like social media for tweens is a good idea, it’s not a long-term solution. Teens need boundaries and help learning how to use their devices responsibly. Instead of taking away the phone as a consequence, involve your teen in a proactive family decision to create new guidelines or rules. The goal shouldn’t be to punish, but to help them experience joy and pleasure without the aid of their device.

3. Get your teen out of the house and engaged in prosocial activities.

The benefits of extracurricular activities can’t be overstated, and extend beyond just keeping them busy. Teens need to learn and build relationships with other trusted adults. Structured activities help teens learn delayed gratification, self-discipline, social skills, and resilience. Adolescence is a transition to adulthood, and participating in the community with adult supervision is an important way for them to strengthen their judgment and self-discipline.

4. They need boundaries and expectations.

Most teens, particularly those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cannot consistently maintain boundaries for themselves despite their best efforts. We set them up to fail when we just take them at their word that they won’t do that. It’s our responsibility to provide expectations and boundaries that are based on their age and demonstrated ability. Teens and tweens actually want boundaries. They know it but they’re not going to ask for it. They’re counting on us to provide it the same way an athlete is counting on the ref to enforce the rules consistently and fairly.

5. Keep consequences short and reasonable.

In those moments when our teens mess up, we sometimes get really angry and react with punitive punishments meant to teach them some kind of lesson. So, we ground them or take away their phone for a month. But if we’re not thoughtful, the punishments will make things worse over time. Our job as parents is to help our kids learn from their mistakes. The window for learning is usually open for a day or two after their mistake. After that, they’ve often moved on.

So, hand out a consequence when you’re calm. Collaborate with them if possible, and focus on activities that facilitate learning. This might be as simple as a conversation or an early curfew or a modified rule like turning in their phone thirty minutes early.

Most of us don’t learn simply by being told what’s right and wrong. Impactful learning comes out of reflection and experience. Your teen’s mistake presents a unique opportunity to help them learn. Leaning on lectures and punishments squanders these moments. When teens are passive participants in their lives, they may become rule-followers and people-pleasers, but they don’t develop critical thinking skills or frustration tolerance.

Next time your teen makes a poor decision, focus on asking questions about how they view the situation, the parts they regret, the parts they don’t’ regret, or what they could have done differently under the same circumstances. For example, “Were you guys planning to have a party the entire time that you told us you weren’t?” “Why do you think you didn’t tell us?” “Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?” or perhaps most important, “What do you propose we do differently going forward so you guys can rebuild trust?”

The reality is that sometimes you will agree to disagree. They may not regret having the party and you may be disappointed that they didn’t take it seriously enough. But the goal in helping our teens isn’t in agreeing or winning an argument—it’s strengthening their critical thinking, self-reflection, and emotional communication skills. This takes time. So be patient, get support when you need it, and hang in there. It does get better.

Yshai Boussi, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor who has helped teens, young adults, and families for more than twenty years. He runs a private practice with his wife Mariah, in Portland, OR, called Portland Family Counseling. Yshai is a highly sought-after speaker, and writes a parenting blog on his website,

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