Teens, Poor Choices, and Getting Back on Track: What Does the Research Say?

By Leah B. Mazzola

How many adults want to relive their teens? Not me. I may be interested in going back to make better choices, otherwise, I’m happy I made it out with enough years ahead to make up for all of my not so bright moves then.  The teen years are a hard time.  Teens look old enough to be expected to make adult choices, but lack the developmental maturity to fully grasp long-term effects of poor choices today (Grisso et al. 2003).  They simply fail to pause long enough to think that far ahead when the choice today directly affects how they feel right now or what they really want to do at the moment.  Yes, teens do have the capacity to choose, but a large body of research tells us many factors beyond their control make those adult-like choices more difficult than we would prefer.

Teens are dealing with changing brains, changing bodies, and a fragile self-concept in a transforming social world that we all know can be brutal for even the most popular kids.  Psychological and social immaturity through these years increases risk-taking, impulsivity, susceptibility to peer influence, sensation seeking, and lack of future orientation (Bartol & Barol, 2012).  Hence, too often failing to stop and reflect or project before acting.  As a result, the majority of adolescents become involved in some form of adolescent-limited deviance (e.g. substance use, vandalism, theft) that begins in adolescence, increases through age sixteen, decreases after seventeen, and desists into adulthood (Conroy, 2012; Moffitt, 1993; Scott & Grisso, 1998; Steinberg, 2007; Steinberg & Monahan, 2007).  No, I did not make that up.  That means a teen engaging in some form of deviance is common enough to be considered normal. Not surprised right? Even violent criminal behavior in adolescents is not a reliable predictor of future criminal behavior (Moffitt, 1456; Vincent et al. 2012).  So, there is hope for teens involved in problem behaviors to redirect before it’s too late.

Regardless, the risks related to many of these behaviors are serious enough to warrant caring adults and professionals dedicated to effective intervention strategies and support through this time.  The good news is that the literature also shows numerous protective factors help to keep kids on track or get them back on track as they process through this stage.  Quite some time ago, developmental psychologists found the top two protective factors for intervention or prevention are personal intolerance of deviance and positive orientation toward school (Jessor et al. 1995).  They also found the top two risk factors were friends modeling problem behavior and low expectations of success (Jessor et al. 1995).

Now, apply that bit of knowledge to the at-risk or high-risk teen who is already involved in deviance of some sort (rules out personal intolerance of deviance), and you have three very important areas of focus for intervention: work to enhance the teen’s motivation and engagement around academic goals, work to enhance the teen’s sense of self-efficacy or confidence, and incorporate positive social support.

Motivation and engagement with school and enhancing self-efficacy or confidence go hand-in-hand.  An enormous body of self-efficacy research supports a person’s sense of self-efficacy determines whether they will try something at all, how much effort they will put into it, and how long they will persist when the task becomes challenging (Bandura, 1997).  The simplest way to begin enhancing confidence and self-efficacy is to focus on what the teen does right, what he or she is good at, what makes them special, his or her personality and character strengths, etc.  Teens engaging in problem behaviors have plenty opportunities to hear about what they are doing wrong.  The extrinsic motivation that comes with feeling guilty or fearing consequences is temporary.  We must tap into and trigger the teen’s intrinsic motivation to change rather than continuously pressing the obvious.  One way to do that is to find something they enjoy doing and find a way to incorporate it into positive and productive activities now, then long-term goals and plans for the future.

To touch on social support, we are social creatures who adapt to our social group to meet survival, love, and belonging needs.  When people identify with a group, the group becomes part of the self (Mackie et al. 2000; Smith & Mackie, 2010).  Unfortunately, if our social group includes negative influences we are much more likely to adapt to, be accepting of, and eventually take on those negative thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Positive change means shifting our social structure to meet our love and belonging needs on the road to better choices.  That begins with finding peers who are committed to doing better or are already there.