Encourage Teens to Think for Themselves

Should you give advice? The answer is the same whether you’re relating to another adult or to a teenager.

One of my friends has an interesting idiosyncrasy. Whenever we talk, his way of interacting with me is to give me advice. I think he does this because he’s intelligent and has a lot of practical experience. Plus, he’s a really nice guy. He has a good heart, and I think he’s just trying to be helpful. What’s odd is that he offers advice even when I haven’t asked for it, and often it seems off-target, as if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His advice always feels inappropriate, because I’m a grown man with three college degrees and 50 years of work and life experience.

He’s not the only person I know who’s quick to offer advice. I think people give advice with a good spirit, just trying to be kind and helpful, especially parents, whose advice is a big part of learning for small children. From Day One, most parents feel it’s their responsibility to guide their children away from harm and help them be happy. And a parent’s love is often expressed in the form of advice. Little kids need advice because they are naive and innocent of the ways of the world. But once a child reaches adolescence they have a lot more experience, and they need to get good at thinking for themselves. Parents who tell their teens what they should do are doing the thinking for the child; they aren’t helping their child learn to use good judgment.

When you give advice to a teenager, you put yourself in the position of trying to solve your child’s problem. This well-intentioned act could have several unwanted consequences.

For one thing, people who are having a bad day or who are dealing with trouble may not want your advice. They may only want you to hear them out while they vent and for you to be a sympathetic ear. So when you give advice, it may strike a wrong chord. They may feel your advice implies that you see them as needy, uninformed or incompetent, while in fact they may feel that in spite of their distress, they know they can handle their own problems, thank you very much. Which is very often the case with healthy, intelligent, experienced people.

So…oops! A kind gesture may not turn out so well. Has that ever happened to you?

Another issue is that it’s hard to solve another person’s problem. The reason is that they have the background information related to the problem, and you don’t. It’s their life, not yours, and much of what’s going on is unknown to you. That’s why when you offer advice, sometimes the other person looks at you in a funny way, as if to say, “What? Where are you coming from?”

But let’s say the person is needy, confused and lacks confidence. Say you make a suggestion or two. If they thank you and actually try what you’ve told them, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. And chances are it won’t because, as I said, you don’t have all the facts.

You may feel great that you’ve helped someone, that your knowledge of the world is substantial enough to help your friends. But if your advice doesn’t work, it might make matters worse. And they could blame you for it.

Even in the best case scenario, there are risks. Say someone needs help and you offer it. Say your advice is appropriate and has the desired effect. It actually solves their problem. Very likely, they’ll feel gratitude. But if this becomes a pattern in your relationship, your support can create a pattern of dependency. This would be unfortunate because both adults and young people need to be able to solve their own problems. If you routinely come to their rescue, it can reinforce their perception of helplessness. This could prevent them from building the self-confidence and self-esteem they need to stand on their own two feet. So your advice would have helped keep them needy and dependent.

This is why I believe giving advice can be riskier than most people appreciate. I also believe that people often give advice because they feel comfortable in a “parent-child” relationship (where they are the parent), rather than in a relationship of equals.

It’s something to watch out for.

But this doesn’t mean that compassion is dangerous or wrongheaded or that you should stop helping people. I think the answer is to try to help people help themselves. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.”

In the best spirit of compassion, we become listeners, so we can understand what people are feeling and what they really need from us. It’s a mistake to automatically assume they want us to give them “the answer.”

Instead, we can encourage them, which means to affirm both their situation, their strengths and the possibilities. If they lack information, tools, and other resources, we can help them find these things – without telling them what to do. And if they are seriously ill or disabled, then we can go as far as our hearts will take us to help them with things they can’t do for themselves – until they can. If you’ve ever been a caretaker, you know there’s a fine line there, and you need to find out where it is.

I think the best spirit of helpfulness is to find out what people really need and give them enough support so they can help themselves. Because when they do that, the rewards are profound.

The best alternative to giving advice is to help people think for themselves by asking open-ended questions, such as: “What do you think the problem is?” “How have you solved this problem in the past?” “What are some other ways to deal with it?” “What could happen if you do that?” And so forth. While affirming them, you can inspire them to consider their own best actions.

A powerful way of talking to teens is described in Chapter 5 of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.

Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, such as  “A Practical Plan to Moderate Teen Screen Exposure.”