Adolescents, their parents, and decisions: Who decides?


The ways in which adolescents mature and begin to develop a healthy level of autonomy are of great interest to both professionals and parents. To explore this process in depth, we designed a study to examine changes in the decision-making autonomy of middle-class African-American teenagers.

This study involved 76 adolescents and their mothers. We surveyed them about decision-making around 20 issues, interviewing them three times during a five-year period, beginning when the teens were 13 years old.

The issues varied greatly among four domains. They were: conventional (defined as arbitrary and agreed-on behavioral norms, like etiquette and manners), prudential (those that have negative consequences for adolescent health and safety, such as when to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes), personal (personal choices pertaining to friends or activities, the state of one's body, and privacy), and multifaceted (issues that overlap the three other domains).

We rated the decision-making for each issue on a five-point scale, based on whether the parent made the decision alone or with adolescent input, and whether the adolescent decided the issue with or without parental input.

The results indicated that adolescent autonomy increased over time, but at different rates for different types of issues. For instance, parents were more involved in decisions about prudential and conventional issues at all ages, although there was a significant shift in autonomy from early to middle adolescence.

Additionally, healthy decision-making autonomy, defined in terms of the types of decision-making that correlated with positive adjustment (better self-worth, less problem behavior) at each age, differed by the type of decision and shifted with age across adolescence. For instance, parental involvement in prudential and conventional issues was associated with better adjustment (better self-worth in early adolescence and less problem behavior in middle adolescence), while greater autonomy over personal and multifaceted issues between middle and late adolescence predicted better adjustment (better self-worth and less depression).

Other specific findings include:

  • Joint decision-making was more characteristic for multifaceted issues, although independence increased between early and middle adolescence.
  • On average, adolescents made decisions about personal issues with some parental input, but independence increased significantly over the course of adolescence. Overall adolescent autonomy was greatest for personal issues across the years
  • Parents continued to make decisions (either alone or with adolescent input) about conventional and prudential issues throughout their child's adolescence. The more parents were involved in such decisions, the higher their teens' sense of self-worth in early adolescence and the lower the likelihood of drug and alcohol use, fighting, and school truancy in middle adolescence.

These findings show that continued parental involvement in decision making over multifaceted and personal issues through middle adolescence (in the context of joint decision-making) and allowing adolescents increasing autonomy over these issues in late adolescence, are important for African-American adolescents' psychosocial adjustment.

In summary, parental guidance and parent-adolescent co-involvement in decision making may help facilitate healthy development for African-American youth, at least until adolescents acquire the competence to make mature and safe decisions on their own.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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