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.

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Louise

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

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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 !

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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.

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Michelle Campbell

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

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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.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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