Many factors contribute to adolescents’ decision-making autonomy

Decision making within families is an important way for young people to gain independence and responsibility, and adolescence is a time of increasing autonomy. A longitudinal study by Penn State researchers in the College of Health and Human Development concludes that teens have more say in certain areas than in others, and that some teens have more autonomy than others.

Over a span of nine years, the researchers annually canvassed parents in about 200 White, European-American families about their teens’ decision making. Mothers and fathers reported on who made decisions in eight areas of their children’s lives: chores, appearance, curfew and bedtime, health, schoolwork, social life, activities and money.

The study found that young people’s input into decisions increased gradually from ages 9 to 14, and then surged from ages 15 to 20. Also, young people had more input into decisions about appearance, activities, schoolwork and social life than about chores, health and curfews. In late adolescence, ages 18 to 20, decisions about money and health were still being made jointly by parents and adolescents, suggesting that autonomy developed more gradually for these types of decisions.

The study also found that certain children had more decision-making autonomy than others. Those with more autonomy included girls, young people whom their parents said were easy to supervise and children with better-educated parents.

The researchers — Laura Wray-Lake, a predoctoral fellow in human development and family studies, Ann Crouter, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development, and Susan McHale, professor of human development — published their findings in the March-April issue of the journal Child Development.

According to Wray-Lake, there wasn’t a single, universal pattern in the development of decision making. Instead, decision-making autonomy, a reflection of the development of youths’ independence and responsibility, depended on what kinds of decisions youngsters faced, and on their personal and family circumstances.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded part of the study.

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