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

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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 !

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.

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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!

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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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