When is Adolescent Behavior a Choice?

 In Adolescent Therapy, Depression & Anxiety, Mental Health Therapist

How often have we said that a child is unmotivated?  How about lazy?  What about “underperforming?”  It is time to open a can of worms regarding whether tween and adolescent behavior is a choice.  As a mental health therapist, minister, and teacher, I have pondered this question of volition for over two decades now.  See the following about our School and Behavior Services.

A Will and a Way

I grew up in a family and culture where there was a belief that if someone wanted to accomplish something, then they could make it happen—the opposite of learned helplessness.  I carried this belief into my almost two decades long teaching career and, even though I was influenced by psychology, I still hold to that belief today.  Recently, however, that view has been challenged by some psychology research I am doing on executive function skills.

Choice or Skill Deficit?

When Suzie does not turn in all her assignments, is she making a choice or is there a skill deficit, say, in organization?  Such a question is deeply philosophical and has vast implications for education, child rearing, and society (think prison system and insanity defense).  Psychology tends to see not doing homework or being off task as a skill deficit, even as “biologically based motivational deficits” (Dawson & Guare).  It may be easier, they argue, for teachers, parents, and mental health therapists to view these issues as issues of will or motivation, but they would be wrong, at least according to some psychologists.

Can’t or Won’t?

So, is it within the control of a twelve year-old, for example, to turn in all of her homework assignments?  Some psychologists answer “no,” and may at least encourage us to explore the possibility that there may be a skill deficit instead of an unwillingness.  The truth of the matter is that it is very difficult to discern can’t from won’t.  A better question is whether there is a skill deficit instead of or in addition to a choice.

If Suzie has no will or choice in the matter, then what can be changed or improved? When we teach her the skills, could she still choose not to use them?   If we do not have some control or influence over them, then how can they be fixed?  Then, why try?

As a mental health therapist, I think on these things.  One point of tension comes to mind.  One adolescent client was getting into a lot of trouble with peers at school.  While I view this behavior as a choice, the mother viewed it as having to do with the other students bothering him.  How is saying his behavior is the result of the pestering of the other students any different from saying “the devil made me do it?”  At what point–and at what age–is a person responsible for their behavior?

As a child, I was taught to handle this problem by internalizing this saying: sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.  Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas.  Average minds discuss events.  Small minds discuss people.”  In working with adolescents, I try to get them to understand that the people who talk about other people are not the kind of people we want to associate with.

Teaching Executive Function Skills to Adolescents

The good news is that something can be done—these skills can be taught.  In fact, some specialty schools have built teaching executive function skills into their curriculum.  As an adolescent therapist, I realize that even when our tweens and adolescents learn these skills, they may still choose not to use them.  We can not avoid wrestling with can’t versus won’t.

If you would like to schedule of free 15 minute consultation, please call me at 704-457-1789.  Please also email me at jeff@jeffsartofempathy.com.

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