Some of the biggest changes our adolescents go through are the ways 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.
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According to research, adolescents and adults pay attention to different information when making decisions. 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. 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.” This will be more effective than, “If you don’t clean your room you’re missing the party/ getting extra chores/ losing screen time.” Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from implementing the consequences if they don’t step up.
All adolescents have greatness in them. But 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’re wired to take risks
During adolescence, the need for novelty, adventure and challenge will help teens 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 mean they are more likely to feel bored or indifferent, but when they get that dopamine rush, it just feels so good. This would be okay if they could get a dopamine high from unstacking the dishwasher or taking out the rubbish! But dopamine is released when they try novel things, do something brave, 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 on 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, we need the prefrontal cortex to make good decisions. 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 prefrontal 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.
As our teens move towards adulthood, 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 we’ll 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.
Attend a Toolbox parenting course
Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.