What is Your Teen Doing Right?

Building on what's right works better—and feels better too.

Posted Jan 25, 2013

Teenagers are particularly sensitive to pleasure.  Laurence Steinberg, among others, has convincingly shown that the parts of the adolescent brain that are sensitive to rewards (the ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex) develop earlier than the part of the brain that controls impulses (the lateral prefrontal cortex).  This is one reason that teens tend to take more risks than adults.  I wrote about this research in an earlier blog called Teens Respond To Pleasure, Not Pain: Parent Accordingly. 

In that piece, I argue that reminding kids of the benefits of behaving appropriately may be more effective in changing their behaviors than reminding them of the negative consequences of messing up.  In other words, saying "Come on, just get that math done.  You'll be able to go play and not have to think about it." may be more effective than saying "If you don't start it now, you may run out of time and fail."

Hmmm . . . Reading that makes me wonder if it would work better on adults too.

In addition to stimulating the sensitive adolescent 'pleasure' centers rather than the 'fear' or 'inhibition' centers, positive parenting has other side benefits.  In An Exercise In Clapping, I talk about something learning theorists have long known: a combination of reward and punishment works better than either alone.  The fastest way to teach a new behavior is to tell people what you want, reward behaviors that are progressively closer to it, while simultaneously indicating when they are going off in the wrong direction.  

Adults often tell kids how we don't want them to behave (stop bothering your sister!) without teaching a more appropriate behavior that will help them accomplish their goal.

To Parent Positively, We Need To See The Good In Our Kids

To parent positively and build on your teen's strengths, you have to SEE those strengths.  They can be easy to miss.

I have a daily checklist in my head of all the things I want my youngest to do.  I bet you do too.  Mine includes: check the chickens, practice his violin, get his math, science, language arts, social studies, and Chinese homework done, straighten his room, call his friends to find out who is bringing snacks on Saturday, sell candy for orchestra, take a shower, brush his teeth, return permission slips . . . 

The list goes on and on.

That list is concrete.  It doesn't include all the other things I want him to do: be polite, be happy help around the house, become passionate, have friends, fall in love, be curious, etc. etc. etc.

Why do I have that mental list?  Because it's my job as his parent to help him get those things done.  That's what we mean when we say that parents are socializing agents.  My son's life is complicated and he needs a little scaffolding to help him get where he wants to be.  All teens do.  That's one reason parents are important.

I can tell you probably every thing on that list my son hasn't done during the last two weeks.  And if I don't remember them spontaneously, I get emails from his school to tell me I need to help him do those things better.

Seeing the Good

It would be easy for me to focus on all those 'failings' (both his and mine).  But it wouldn't be the best thing for me to do.  Because, in general, like most kids, my son is pretty amazing.  He does lots of things right.  He is learning new skills every day.  And often the reason things go wrong isn't that he has just blown them off, but because he's gotten so engrossed in doing something else that he's just run out of time.  Sometimes sleep and fun should come before schoolwork and chores.

So, just as an exercise, I decided to write down five things my son seems to be doing well:

  • He told me that he feels happier and less stressed since he got his video games cut off during the week and that, even though he didn't like it, it was probably a good idea.
  • He can tell me HOW he is supposed to keep his assignment book organized, even though he doesn't do it consistently yet.
  • He is wonderful helping me get the house cleaned up Saturday mornings so it looks okay when his friends come over to play Dungeons and Dragons.
  • He cleans the cat's litter box - just like he said he would when I said he could get a kitten last summer.
  • He laid down next to the fireplace with me last night when I got home just to tell me about his day.

One of the things I noticed in writing this list is how each successive item changed.  It started with the 'parenting' things: things we're doing to keep him out of trouble and on track.  But as I got further into the list, it become more and more about him and things he was spontaneously doing that just made him nice to be around.  


What is your kid doing right?