My Child Has Difficulty Making Decisions: How Can I Help?

difficulty making decisions

Q: My daughter can’t make a decision to save her life. When she was picking out a new shirt at the store, she had a meltdown because she couldn’t decide between red or blue. Every time we’re at a restaurant, if we let her, she’d take 30 minutes to decide what she wants to order. Even a question about whether she wants a good friend to come over can ruin her day as she waffles between yes or no. She has such difficulty making decisions. How can I help her?

The decisions children make when they’re young likely will have little bearing on their future

It doesn’t matter, after all, if she picks the chicken nuggets or pizza off the menu one night or dons a red or blue shirt to go to school.

But the skills children develop while making these seemingly inconsequential decisions now can have a big impact on the people they will ultimately become. A well-made decision leads to satisfaction and fulfillment, writes Jim Taylor, author and psychologist, in Psychology Today. And when kids suffer from a poorly made choice, they’ll learn to make a better one next time.

Decision making is one of the most important skills your children need to develop to become healthy and mature adults,” Taylor writes. “Decision making is crucial because the decisions your children make dictate the path that their lives take.”

While some kids have no problem landing on their desired choice, for others, it’s a struggle. In the moment, they can become paralyzed with indecision as parents grow frustrated wondering why they can’t just pick between, for example, popcorn or candy at the movie theater. 

The key, said Jennifer Miller, an expert in social and emotional learning and author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids,” is giving kids plenty of opportunities to make those smaller decisions.

“In order to become a responsible decision maker, you need a whole lot of rehearsal with smaller choices,” Miller said. “And those smaller choices need to be authentic. If mom gives you two choices, but she’s really wanting you to pick one, that’s not an authentic choice.” 

For kids who have difficulty making decisions, Miller suggests three strategies to boost their abilities.

Give them options and be patient

Crayons or markers? Bike ride or playground? Instead of mapping out their day for them, give young children some control during it. “Choices do not need to be big, dramatic and monumental to have an impact on a child’s confidence,” Miller said. 

As they’re considering their options, give them some time.

“It’s so easy for us to step in and do it, and we don’t even think twice about it because it’s a mundane everyday issue. Big whoop,” she said. “But to a child who is struggling, it is a big whoop. They need the practice. So sometimes it takes our patience and our wait time to let them struggle through it with us by their side. Then, the next time, it won’t take so long.”

Talk about goals

If your child is struggling with whether to have a friend over for a playdate, for example, talk to them about their goals and priorities. Would they like to strengthen their friendships right now, or could they really use some quiet time? Is this a friend that they would like to get to know better, or is there another friend they’d prefer to hang out with?

“Ask them just some basic questions because they don’t have the criteria for decision-making yet,” Miller said. “You’re helping them figure out how you figure out big questions. It’s not intuitive for young people.” 

Focus on their strengths

If your child loves to cook, sign them up for a cooking class. If they can’t stop coding, get them involved in a computer program. “Look for whatever would play to their strengths and wherever their interests intersect where they’ll meet other kids who have something in common with them and where they’ll likely feel good about themselves,” she said.

Teach them to trust their gut

Sometimes decisions just feel right or wrong. Miller counsels parents to teach their kids to trust that intuition, especially when they might be in harm’s way.

“You can practice your brain-gut connection,” said Miller, “when you see something disturbing on TV by saying, ‘How’s your gut feeling? How do you feel? Do you feel like you want to run away? Do you feel safe? You‘ve got to trust that feeling. It’s there to protect you.’”

Lesson idea: Please check out our Would You Rather Questions for Kids worksheets for a supplemental activity.

Don’t be their rescuer

“Being careful not to rescue your child through these situations is really important even though you likely are very frustrated. [At a restaurant], if you don’t have a half an hour to decide on an item here, how can you not rescue her, but also support her? Is there a small way? Maybe she orders the side dish and you help her order the rest, but you have her fully take responsibility for the side dish and articulate what she wants to the waitress. Being able to assert yourself is also really key. And if she doesn’t have that opportunity, it will increase her anxiety because when she’s not with you, she’s going to have to do it.”

Jennifer Miller, Expert in social and emotional learning and author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids”

Let them fail

“Part of your children learning to make good decisions is allowing them to make poor ones. If handled properly, bad decisions can play a powerful role in your children becoming good decision makers. Yes, they should be held accountable for their decisions by providing them with consequences that are commensurate with their offenses. But children must also be required to explore their decisions, understand why they made a poor decision, and ensure that they ‘get it’ so that they don’t make the same bad decision again.”

Jim Taylor, Author and psychologist, via Psychology Today

Encourage action

“Instead of urging them, ‘Come on, come on, make up your mind,’ try letting them know that the decision will default to you if they don’t take action. So we might say, ‘Would you like apple juice or orange juice? Would you like to decide or shall I decide?’ It looks like you would like me to decide. It’s apple juice. Of course, they are going to freak out, ‘I wanted orange juice.’ Expect that. And you can simply let them know, ‘I’m sorry. Looks like you’re disappointed with the choice I made. You can decide for yourself the next time.” 

Alyson Schafer, Parenting expert, via Huffington Post