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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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