By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Decision making for kids is a difficult skill that takes practice to master.
Many adults have trouble making decisions, so one can imagine how challenging it is for children. How do we help our child learn how to make good choices? The answer is we allow him to struggle to a certain extent with an age-appropriate decision, but when it gets to a point that it is beyond his ability, it may be healthier to make the decision for him in a way that is supportive of the child’s desires. In other words, it is sometimes necessary to help the child make the decision that he really wants to make.
Decision Making for Kids: Which Toy Should I Buy?
Let's say a child is struggling to decide which toy to buy. He simply may not have the maturity to calculate which toy is the best deal for the money and which one will provide him with the most long-term enjoyment. It takes a lot of maturity, adult intelligence and skill to do that. Sometimes, if you let the child decide completely on his own he will pick a toy that ends up not being very enjoyable or one that is overpriced or otherwise inappropriate, and this will result in unhappiness and problems. Don’t think that the child needs to “Learn the consequences for her decisions.” There are plenty of inevitable disappointments for her to learn this lesson, so she doesn’t need any more, especially when we can help prevent them. Anyway she is probably too immature to learn that lesson. So you need to support your child’s decision with good advice. Help the child realize which toy is really best for him, which one he really wants. Explain to him why this toy is better. You have to really know your customer, you have to know what he really wants and needs. However if it's an older child she may need to make the decision as to which toy to get completely on her own, and any control by the parents will feel like an intrusion.
Appreciate The Difficulty of Deciding
eckWhen a child can’t make up his mind don't hurry him or pressure him to make a certain decision. Rather say “It's not easy to decide. It's a hard choice to make, as you like both of them. Which appeals more to your heart?” Showing appreciation for the difficulty of the decision validates the child’s experience and this kind of pleasure and sense of being understood gives him the strength to make a proper choice. Showing him that we appreciate the value of his struggle is very helpful. Informing him that decisions are hard for everybody encourages him to rise to the challenge. It gives him a greater sense of satisfaction when he accomplishes something that is presented as ‘hard to do’. And if he can't decide he is consoled by the fact that it was a tough task anyway.
Sometimes when a child is struggling to decide you should use the “On the one hand…” technique. Restate, “On the one hand, you really want to go to the movies with your Dad, but on the other hand you really want to go to the party because all your friends are going to be there. Hmmm… That’s a tough one. I have confidence that you’ll come up with a solution.” This helps him to clarify the parameters of the problem, and shows him that you appreciate the depth of the challenge he is facing. It further gives him your vote of confidence that he will come out on top.
Decision Making Skills Need To Be Learned Gradually
When a child is six months old he doesn't make any decisions for himself — when he's 25 he makes all his own decisions. How do we get from here to there? The answer is gradually! Every year as he grows up fewer and fewer decisions are made by his parents and more are made by the child. So you need to be wise and figure out at each age exactly which and how many decisions he should be making for himself and which we should still be making for him. If you let a six-year-old make more decisions than he should it will be dangerous and irresponsible. But if you let her make fewer decisions than she needs to make she will not develop a healthy autonomy, and she will feel restricted, be unhappy and may rebel. Therefore test the waters and see if making a decision makes her happy. That is a sign she is ready for it. But if it frustrates her she may need your help.
Remember that the more a child gets used to making decisions when he is young, the more of a decisive and responsible adult he will turn out to be. Therefore we need to be careful to not over-control our children, while giving them support when they need it.
Above all never make a child feel badly about his trouble deciding, by putting him down or criticizing him. “Why can’t you decide by now?” or “What’s wrong with you? Make up your mind!” We need to have patience as it takes years to develop a mature decision-making ability.
How Does Play Therapy Help?
Here at Tribeca Play Therapy in downtown Manhattan, Play Therapy is very helpful in developing a child's power of decision. In play, I allow the child to completely control the session. She makes all of her own decisions. Even if she asks me to decide something, if I estimate it’s a choice she’s ready to handle, I don’t make it, I return the responsibility back to her. She thinks, “Wow, an adult thinks my decisions are important and meaningful. I see I can make good decisions.” The pleasure she gets from my validating her decisions encourages her to make more. In addition, I reflect back to the child each decision, however minor, she may make, “Oh, now you’ve decided to pump up a balloon.” Thus the child gains a conscious awareness of her decision-making accomplishments, and she feels proud and is encouraged to make more. Play therapy puts your child in the driver’s seat, it lets her be the boss of something. This is extremely healthy emotionally and leads to great personal growth. For more information on how Play Therapy benefits a child's emotional health, click here.
Please be advised that the above represents an ideal and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
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If you are experiencing challenges with decision making for kids or other issues, and seek a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan,
you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!