Calibrating The Compass: Improving Your Teen’s Independent Thinking Skills

A parent writes: Our teenage children seem too dependent upon us to help them make decisions. What advice do you have to guide them towards more independent problem solving?

All parents hope their children will mature in ways that allow them to successfully navigate through life's complexities. With this goal in mind, parents gradually loosen the reins so children can gain valuable confidence and experience making self-guided decisions. The onset of adolescence puts decision-making to the test due to the twists and tribulations of this difficult phase. Increased freedom and exposure to so many influences necessitates independent thinking skills or negative consequences will most certainly occur.

Here are some tips to coach your teen to becoming an improved independent thinker:

 Introduce the need for everyone to build a "thinking compass" to guide decision-making. Share specific examples of how this compass is relied upon in life to figure out the best course of action in different situations. When expected plans change, unexpected disappointments occur, or new opportunities pursued, the compass is called upon. At each new life juncture, such as the start of high school or the earning of a driver license, unforeseen problems await and the compass must be available to assist. Mention how mistakes are bound to occur, but they are opportunities to further "calibrate the compass," rather than to hide or deny their occurrence.

 Stress the importance of requesting parental help and advice but support their need to draw from it to build their own "sense of direction." Many challenges are to be met on one's own in adolescence, and parents must support the need to build an autonomous desire to do so. "I could easily give you my advice and thoughts but I would first like to hear what you have to say," is one way to ensure that your teen grapples with their own answers to difficult situations. Help them explore options by categorizing them into likely consequences, likely degree of success, and so on. Whenever possible try to resist the urge to rescue them from the need to summon their own resources. This is especially important at a time when help is only a cell phone call away.

 Explain how it is easier to "think on one's feet" when you have established "thinking routes" to rely upon. A thinking route is a decision path, built out of the lessons from the past, preparing them for challenges ahead. As children mature there are a myriad of lessons that contain insight into how to proceed in certain situations. When parents encourage children to consider the pros and cons or cause and effect they are reinforcing the notion of following an established path for decision making. Inject principles such as "safety is more important than fun" or "admit my errors and learn from them" and your teen comes to recognize that they are building a thoughtful guidance system to steer among the "potholes" ahead.

 Contribute to their repertoire of thinking skills by sharing personal anecdotes from your past or those from their young childhood. Select stories that open up their mind to solving problems or understanding a situation from different perspectives. It's not enough to simply say "learn from my mistakes" unless you offer the narrative accompanying the lessons. Similarly, revisit early memories that are too distant for them to remember with the lessons serving as the backdrop.

Dr. Steven Richfield is an author and child psychologist in Plymouth Meeting, PA He has developed a child-friendly, self-control/social skills building program called Parent Coaching Cards now in use in thousands of homes and schools throughout the world. His book, "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society," is available through Sopris West ( or 1-800-547-6747) He can be contacted at or 610-238-4450. To learn more, visit