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Teens Respond to Pleasure, Not Pain: Parent Accordingly

Match your parenting to how teens' brains work.

It's not often that I read a scientific paper and immediately change how I parent my child.

But I did last week.

I was reading a series of pieces by developmental psychologist, Laurence Steinberg, first recipient of the Klaus Jacobs award for "groundbreaking contributions to the improvement of the living conditions of young people." Steinberg has spent his career studying adolescents. His early work focused on the family—how teens renegotiate family relations during the pubertal transition (kids win, moms lose) and then on parents' continuing role in adolescents' lives. His textbook, Adolescence, was the first in the field. It continues to educate generations of students who will go on to become healthcare workers, lawyers, and educators so that their work will be based on facts, not stereotypes.

More recently, Steinberg has focused his attention on adolecent risk-taking, integrating his training in human development and family studies with neuroscience and new brain imagining techniques. He was lead scientist of the amicus brief filed by the American Psychological Association in the U.S. Supreme Court case (Roper v. Simmons) that abolished the juvenile death penalty.

Last week, I read what Steinberg had to say about teenagers and risk.

Teenagers aren't stupid. Really.

Although teens are typically healthier than either children or adults, they wind up in the hospital a lot. Why? Risk. They crash cars because they're drunk or driving too fast. They shoot each other. They take foolish risks texting and riding bicycles. They get pregnant because they have unprotectect sex with condoms in their pockets.

Teens do dumb things.

But they're not stupid. Study after study has shown that adolescents are AWARE of risks. If anything they are more aware of risk than adults are (probably because we keep warning them about danger) and overestimate the negative consequences of their actions.

Why then do they make foolish decisions?

It's all in their brains.

In Age Differences in Sensation Seeking and Impulsivity as Indexed by Behavior and Self-Report: Evidence for a Dual Systems Model, Steinberg and colleagues argue that the different growth speed of two areas of the brain create a perfect storm for risky behavior.

Their argument is straightforward. Sensation seeking—taking pleasure in strong positive experiences —is situated in two brain areas: the ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex, both of which process incentives. Impulse control—what keeps us from acting prematurely—is situated in the lateral prefrontal cortex. Although both are involved in risk-taking, they aren't the same. Steinberg's analogy: people waiting in a long line at Disney World to take a roller coaster are high in sensation seeking (leading them to seek out risk) but also high in impulse control (which should help them avoid risk).

Although both areas of the brain change from childhood to adulthood, they don't change at the same speed.

  • The incentive processing centers become sensitized right after puberty, making adolescents take much more pleasure out of rewards. This leads them to experience risk as relatively more pleasurable.
  • The impulse control centers of the brain develop more slowly over time, and are still developing in early adulthood. This is the part of the brain that keeps you from doing risky things before you think through the consequences.

Too much accelerator, not enough brake

During most of the teen years, this creates a problem. Risky behaviors feel great and are experienced as more rewarding. Impulse control hasn't yet caught up—nor have knowledge and judgment. Thus emotion says go, but wisdom hasn't yet said stop.

How science changed my parenting

There are important take-home messages here for risktaking, social policy, and our understanding of teens that I will discuss in my next post.

But the first thing I took home from this reading had to do with my parenting. TEENS ARE MOTIVATED BY PLEASURE, NOT BY PAIN.

Thus 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.

I 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.


For a followup piece on how valuing pleasure is exacerabed by the presence of peers, read Hey Guys! Watch This! Why teens do dumb things with their friends.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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