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.