How to Increase Your Influence With Your Teen

How to Increase Your Influence With Your Teen

The brain changes that happen during adolescence are phenomenal. They have to be – transitioning from a child to an adult is no easy feat. These changes will spark the courage, creativity, and adventurous spirit that will see our adolescents feeling their edges, pushing against them and finding their place in the world as healthy, capable adults.

Some of the biggest changes will be in the way they learn and make decisions. They will be more vulnerable to risky behaviour, so any way you can increase your influence with your teen will be important – for them and for you.

Challenging the limits is part of their job during adolescence. The dependence on us that held them safe and snug during childhood will start to feel restrictive. They will be looking to stretch, reach, and explore. This is a great thing. It’s healthy and normal and it’s what gives life to the beginning of the capable, open-minded, open-hearted, brave and brilliant adults they will be.

Slowly, we will hand the world over to them. It is because of the changes they go through during adolescence, that we can know the world is in safe and very wonderful hands. They will be our entrepreneurs, creators, adventurers, teachers, artists, changemakers, lawmakers, history-makers and limit-breakers … but first, adolescence.

How to increase your influence with your teen.

Some of the biggest changes our adolescents will go through will be in the way they learn and make decisions. The decisions they make won’t always be great ones. We were the same. They will experiment with their independence, their courage will flourish, and they will be driven to challenge old boundaries. The control we have over our adolescents will start to diminish, but what we can have is influence. 

New research has found a way to do this. When we want to guide their behaviour, we will have more influence if we focus on rewards, or what they have to gain from a course of action, rather than talking about punishments or what they have to lose.  

According to the research, adults and adolescents have a similar capacity to be influenced by the potential gains of a situation. Adolescents though, are less able to take the potential negatives into account. They will tend to base their decisions more heavily on what they might gain, rather than on what they might lose. They will focus more on the positives and less on the negatives. Now that we know the language, we can use it to connect with them and meet them where they are. 

The research. What they did.

Researchers from the University College London set a task for two groups of volunteers. One group were 12-17 year olds and the other were 18-32 year olds. Their task was to choose between abstract symbols. The symbols each had a fixed chance of a reward, a punishment or no consequence at all. Over the course of the task, the participants learned which symbols were likely to bring which consequence. The idea was that they would adjust their choices accordingly – to choose the symbols that brought reward.

After each decision, participants were told what would have happened if they had made an alternative choice. The adults used this information to significantly improve their performance in future decisions. The teens, on the other hand, didn’t seem to take this information into account at all. As explained by Dr Stefano Palminteri, author of study, École Normale Supérieure, Paris, ‘… adolescents did not learn from being shown what would have happened if they made alternative choices.’ 

Both the teen group and the adult group were equally good at choosing the symbols that were associated with a reward. The teens however, were less able to avoid the symbols that were associated with a negative consequence.

‘… we can draw conclusions about learning during adolescence. We find that adolescents and adults learn in different ways … Unlike adults, adolescents are not so good at learning to modify their choices to avoid punishment. This suggests that incentive systems based on reward rather than punishment may be more effective for this age group.’ Dr Stefano Palminteri.

What does this mean for you and your teen?

Adolescents and adults pay attention to different information when making decisions. It’s no wonder we can be so baffling to each other! Adolescents are more influenced by rewards or the potential gains of a situation. They tend to pay little attention to punishments or the potential negatives. If teens are faced with a decision which, in their eyes, has equally positive and negative consequences, they will be more likely to go with the decision that could give them something they want, despite the potential for negative consequences.

In practical terms, this means that you’ll have more influence with your teen if you highlight what they might gain from a good decision, rather than what they might lose from a bad one. Think rewards over punishment. Positives over negatives. This goes for something you want to talk them into as well as the things you want to talk them out of. 

For example, let’s say you want them to tidy up the unnatural disaster that is their bedroom. To get them on board, channel the motivational speaker in you and highlight the rewards that will come to them if they get busy cleaning. Maybe give a little incentive if you need to: ‘You can go to the party/ have two days off doing the dishwasher/ extra screen time/ if you clean your room.’

By highlighting the positives, you’re appealing to their need for reward. This will be more effective than, ‘If you don’t clean your room you’re missing the party/ getting extra chores/ losing screen time.’ According to the research, they’ll be less likely to use information relating to negative consequences to inform their decision. They’ll be more motivated by rewards than by punishments.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from implementing the consequences if they don’t step up. If you can though, it’s always best to avoid the potential for heartache or flare-ups, which can often have the gravitational pull of a small planet … ‘what do you mean I can’t go to the party! Absolutely everyone is going and I’m meant to be there in an hour so you can’t do this to me. And anyway it’s Saturday – how can you do this to me on a Saturday! Please! I’m not even kidding you guys – you seriously can’t do this to me – omg – I can’t believe you are actually doing this – you seriously don’t care about me at all do you because if you did you would never put me through this. Okay then … what if I promise, like totally promise, that I’ll do it, like, tomorrow. Please, you guys. Please! …’ Yep. Best avoided.

Why do smart kids do not-so-smart things?

All adolescents have greatness in them. Sometimes, that greatness will be heavily disguised beneath bad decisions. These bad decisions are driven by the same mechanics that will also lead them to be brave, creative, compassionate, bold, daring and innovative. Here’s why.

They are wired to take risks.

During adolescence, the world opens up. The need for novelty, adventure and challenge will help them to explore what they are capable of and extend their limits. The growth and learning that come from this are critical to them becoming less dependent on the family and stepping into the world as healthy, well-adjusted, independent adults. The need for this exploration and experimentation will sometimes lead them into risky situations. 

They’re looking for a dopamine high.

Dopamine is the ‘I’ve gotta have it’ chemical in the brain. It’s released every time we get something we want. In the adolescent brain, the levels of this are lower than they are in adults, which is why they might seem a bit flat sometimes – but – when it is released, it is released at higher levels than it is in adults. You can see how this is going to end up. Low levels are going to mean they are more likely to feel bored or indifferent, but when they get that dopamine rush, it just feels soooo good. This would be okay if they could get a dopamine high from unstacking the dishwasher or taking out the rubbish, but evolution clearly wasn’t that forward thinking. Dopamine is released when they do things like try novel things, do something brave and bold, eat, fall in love, connect, or take risks. Chasing the dopamine high can be done safely or unsafely. Their tendency to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives will leave them open to both.

Being different to their peers will feel like death.

Part of the journey towards adulthood involves separating from their family tribe and moving towards their adult tribe – their peers. During this time, feeling connected to their friends will feel like a matter of life or death. It sounds dramatic and for them, it is. There’s a good reason for this. Throughout history, being excluded from the tribe (or the pack) has meant almost certain death. For people and in nature, there is safety in numbers – from predators and from the elements. For our teens, when they are excluded from their tribe (and not doing what their peers are doing counts as exclusion), it can feel like death. It really is that strong. Because of this, they will often be lead to do silly things for the very simple and very complicated reason that they don’t want to be excluded from their tribe. 

The instinctive, impulsive part of the brain will have a heavy hand in decisions.

At the beginning of adolescence, the adolescent brain is powered up with about a billion new neurons. This is to give teens the firepower to transition through adolescence and come out beautifully the other side as healthy, capable adults. In the meantime, the brain will wire and strengthen from the back to the front. One of the first parts to develop is the amygdala, which is involved in instinctive, impulsive, emotional reactions. When it’s a matter of survival, letting the amygdala have a heavy hand in decisions can keep us alive. Outside those times though, to make good decisions, we need the pre-frontal cortex. This is the sensible, problem-solving, logical part of the brain that is able to calm instinctive, impulsive reactions and consider consequences. The problem is though, that the pre-frontal cortex won’t be fully developed until about age 24. Until then, decision-making will be heavily influenced by the amygdala. Their decisions will be driven more by instinct and impulse than by rational, thoughtful consideration of the consequences. The teen brain has been likened to a high-performance sports car – all the capability and power – but without any brakes.

And finally …

As our teens move towards adulthood, we will notice the changes. We will have less control, we will be challenged, we will fight with them, and we will fight for them. Some days will be hell. Then, there will be the other days. The ones that will see us moved by their sensitivity, doubled over by their wit and feel our hearts explode on impact when they leave the door to themselves and their vulnerability slightly ajar. Adolescents are adults in training. There is so much they need to do on their own, but they also need our love and guidance more than ever. For a while, this will have to be on their terms. The more we can speak their language and understand how they see the world, the more we can respond to them in a way that makes it easy for them to be open to our wisdom and our influence.

20 Comments

Sharon

I just found this website and am so excited!!! I am a 74 year old grandmother very involved with my 13 years old granddaughter. She lives with her dad, but he is very critical of her. Her mother lives in another city and is not very present in her life. I am a retired high school counselor. Of course it’s hard to say and do the things I was trained to do as it is so close to me. I have copied a bunch of your articles and will be reading and practicing the recommendations. She is experiencing tremors in her hands and leg. I believe it is stress as the first blood test showed nothing. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!! God bless

Reply
Patricia

Thank you so much for this article. Thank you for remind us parents of teenagers that “for a while, this will have to be on their terms.” What a relief to be reassured that these challenging times too shall pass! 🙂

Reply
Betsy

Hey Karen, I love Hey Sigmund and this article is excellent. I want to share it in my professional work but would love to give you a day to fix a typo in your fourth subheading: “Why Do Smart Kids TO….” I think you mean “DO” Best wishes for future work, and thanks again.

Reply
Louise

What a fantastic article, and what better timing as my children are entering this age

Reply
Mindy

Thank you! This arrival along with many others have really enlightened me with raising my teenager! I highly recommend reading anything and everything that can help raise a teenager !

Reply
Kathy Druer

Teen yrs. are tough on kids and the adults but as the article states positives to actions result in good decisions made by our teens. The article format shows many alternative ways to influence our teen yet give them self pride and confidence in the good decision.

Reply
Michelle Campbell

As a student teacher, this is perhaps the most important classroom management tool I know have. Thanks Karen and researchers!

Reply
Stan

Thanks again, Karen, for another excellent article. I have a wonderful son who is just coming into his teenage years and this article has opened my eyes on how better to help him along.

More often than not, parents can show our kids the negative possibilities to an unwanted action by our teens, but knowing that the positive responses would work better for how their minds work is so helpful.

Brilliant article!

Reply
Michelle

Brillant!!! I’ll be sharing for sure! Thanks so much! Keep em coming! I’m raising a tween so this was incredibly helpful!

Reply
Robert Hammel

An excellent article thank you. Sharing. Some great advice here. Teenagers can be trying and on top of that, they have 3X the energy that the parent does. Getting into prolonged conflict is often just painful and pointless.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Robert! You’re so right – teens have a ton of energy for the things that matter. This is lovely to watch, especially if you’re not the one on the wrong side of it.

Reply

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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