To help kids feel a sense of control and manage meltdowns, the parenting mantra goes, offer two choices you can both live with. But what if, even then, your child agonizes over it?
Dr. Jane Sosland, a pediatric behavioral psychologist at The University of Kansas Hospital, says decision-making occurs in the area of the brain that handles problem-solving. We’re born with this ability, but our environment and personality can affect our confidence when weighing options.
“A child who is particularly anxious or worried or cares a lot about what other people think may be one who is much more careful about making decisions,” Sosland says.
Here are some suggestions for parents on teaching decision making skills.
1. Weigh importance.
Help your child differentiate between minor and more-important decisions – in which the pros and cons should be considered. Be mindful of modeling, too, talking through your own decisions and explaining options.
2. Target praise.
When your child makes a selection, reaffirm her choice to reinforce desired behavior. For example, “I like that red shirt you chose to wear,” or “Good call on the restaurant you picked. It’ll be fun to try something new!”
3. Practice builds confidence.
Making decisions is essentially taking risks, especially if you’re unsure about the choices. A child who harbors strong self-doubt may begin to avoid making any significant decisions for fear of being “wrong.”
But the last thing you want is for your child to start giving away his decision-making power to others. Begin with small, easier decisions to help him feel successful going out of his comfort zone.
4. Avoid criticism.
Decisions don’t always pan out in our favor. Empathize but don’t criticize, Sosland says: “The key is to keep encouraging them to learn new skills and try new things.” If your child decides to play a sport but then says he doesn’t like it, explain he has to finish the season since he made the commitment – but that you’re proud of him for taking the risk.
5. Set limits.
Too many options can fuel anxiety and indecision. Give guidelines to help your child simplify. For example, before taking her to the store to spend birthday money, discuss what type of toy she’d like to buy. Tell her she’ll have 15 minutes to decide, and then you’ll be moving on to finish your other shopping. Point out items she can afford to narrow it down. Still can’t decide? Tell her you’ll have to come back later.
6. External motivation.
Offer simple incentives – such as privileges your child already gets for “free,” Sosland says. If he sticks to his initial decision about what to eat for breakfast without argument, he can listen to the music of his choice or play on the iPad on the way to school.
If indecision causes severe distress, meltdowns and disruption – or if you’re concerned your child has a larger anxiety disorder – consult with your pediatrician or mental health provider.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2016.