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How to Help Your Child Make Tough Choices

How to Help Your Child Make Tough Choices

When your child is faced with a tough choice, remember that his ability to reason out his decision is part of growing up. Here, advice from a child psychologist on how to help your kids make difficult decisions in their lives.


Nine-year-old Hailey is struggling with a big decision: Should she go to her best friend’s birthday party, or miss the party to spend a special day in the city with her grandparents and cousins? It is all she has been thinking about for days, and now her grandparents need to buy theater tickets, so she must make a decision! Hailey’s parents have a definite opinion about which choice their daughter should make, but should they try to persuade her, or let her decide?

Life is filled with tough choices, and often a decision to choose one path results in a tradeoff or loss. For Hailey, either choice will be fun and meaningful—but she can’t do both, so she will miss out on one. Sometimes, making a choice may be even more difficult. A close friend of mine once gave up a career-changing opportunity to be the keynote speaker at a professional event to attend a friend’s funeral. She made the decision without hesitation—years of practice making tough decisions has taught her how to quickly analyze potential decisions and recognize their immediate and long-term impact.

When a child is faced with a tough decision, it is hard to watch him struggle with what seems like a monumental undertaking. Tears, demands for help, and plenty of mind-changing may ensue. In addition, we want him to make what we consider the correct decision. It is easy to persuade him to see things our way—convince him to choose the ‘right’ path and end his decision-making torment. But…is this the best way to handle it?

Learning how to make decisions and to own the consequences (good or bad) is a critical life skill that every child needs to develop. When you short-circuit this process for your child, she will not learn how to do it. Therefore, beginning with the small decisions of childhood, you can help guide her, but remember that the value for your child is in the struggle, not in you choosing for her. There are a few ways you can support your child in making difficult decisions while still helping her learn the skill.


Show your child how to make a pros and cons list.

This is an excellent technique to bring clarity to a hard decision. If the decision is between two great choices, then a “pros and pros” list can be an effective way to decide.


Help your child learn to predict the consequences of a decision…

…and then handle those potential consequences. At 9 years old, Hailey may need help recognizing that missing the party might result in her feeling left out, or hurting her friend’s feelings. Not attending the day with her family could mean her grandparents’ disappointment and the loss of special family time. Whichever she decides will mean that she needs help explaining clearly and with sensitivity to the other individual why she made her decision.


Teach your child how see difference between ‘fun’ and ‘the right’ thing.

Having a strong moral compass can be one of the most difficult aspects of decision-making for kids and adults. Responding “yes” to a not-so-cool friend’s sleepover and then retracting with a lie in order to attend the popular kid’s party is probably not the morally correct decision. Ultimately, you may need to let your child make the choice, but not before you have explored the moral and emotional consequences for him. It can help a child develop morality and empathy by asking “how would you feel if someone did this to you?”


Decision-making doesn’t always get easier with age, so to further help your child, share your decision-making struggles and their outcomes. And remember, very few decisions are truly life-changing, especially during childhood. 


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Susan Bartell, Psy.D.


Susan Bartell, Psy.D., is a Long Island-based, nationally recognized child psychologist, speaker, and award-winning author. Dr. Bartell is a media expert, frequently seen on CBS, ABC, FOX, and CNN. She is the author of seven books, including the highly-acclaimed The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. You can learn more about her at or follow her on Twitter @drsusanbartell.

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