Motivating Teens to Make Better Choices

Originally written as a letter to parents on October 11, 2011

In my parent forums and and informal conversations, one question that often comes up is how to motivate their children to make better choices.  I thought I’d share with you one thought that parents might find helpful.

As car insurance companies would be the first to tell you, adolescents are prone to risky behaviors.  It’s not that our children are blissfully unaware of the risks – research shows that they can identify high-risk behavior quite effectively. Instead, it’s a matter of brain development.  Part of our brain seeks out exciting, pleasurable sensations – it’s the part that gets excited by roller-coasters, good food, and the ding of the text message.  Another part of the brain controls our impulses and keeps us from acting rashly.  These two areas of the brain develop at different speeds. Or, as another psychologist Nancy Darling puts it, adolescent brains have “too much accelerator, not enough brake.”

Luckily, there is some parenting wisdom embedded in this science.  Teens seek out risky behavior because it is pleasurable, not because it might lead to pain.  Put simply, they are motivated by pleasure more than they are motivated by pain.  Darling recently took this insight and applied it to her own parenting:

Telling a 13 year old that he will fail a test tomorrow if he doesn’t study isn’t that effective in inducing willing compliance. He knows that. But risk avoidance is not emotionally motivating. And that video game sure is.

Reminding a 13 year old how good it feels to accomplish something, how happy he’ll be when he does well, and how much more time he will have to play if he studies efficiently works a lot better.  Those POSITIVE emotions activate their incentive processing center. And teens are VERY sensitive to pleasure.

So I tried it.

I stopped reminding my son of all the negative consequences of not doing what he was supposed to, and consistently pointed out how good it felt to do the right thing. — every positive I could think of.  A week later, things are going great.

He’s less anxious. His work has improved. We’ve gotten along better. And he’s taking more responsibility for making good choices. Even choices he doesn’t like (like practicing his violin tonight because he wants a whole day of uninterrupted time on Saturday). And you know what? I feel better too. I can be motivated by reward as well.

After a recent parent coffee, one parent noted how refreshing it was to talk to other parents about the issues facing this age group.  If you find yourself facing a dilemma that has you uncertain, I hope you know that you can include me, your children’s teachers, and other TVS parents in your circle of support.

To read Dr. Nancy Darling’s full article in Psychology Today, you can visit:

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