Getting teens to listen can be a challenge, and when they don’t, parents often tend to rely on criticism and negative consequences to “teach” their teens to make better choices in the future. A new study suggests this might be counterproductive.
The study, conducted by University College–London, looked at the differences between the motivational styles of adults versus adolescents. Researchers report, “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. Additionally, we found that adolescents did not learn from being shown what would have happened if they made alternative choices.”
This might explain why so many parents are mystified by the fact that no matter how many consequences they pile on, their kids (in general) and teens (in particular) tend to keep repeating the same undesirable behaviors. It turns out that negative consequences may not only cause teens to avoid undesirable behavior, it may even reinforce it.
What’s a parent to do? Two things: Teach/support the “positive opposite”, and reward good choices.
Teaching and supporting the “positive opposite” means that instead of telling your teen what not to do and then punishing them if they do it, parents should tell the teen exactly what they DO want to see and then create a structure that supports their success. For instance, instead of punishing your teen if they come home too late from a friend’s house, telling them ahead of time, “I need you to be home by 11 tonight.” and then texting him at 10:30 to say, “Hey son, I hope you’ve had a good night. Start wrapping up because I need you home by 11.” Such an approach establishes a clear expectation at the outset and then creates a structure that supports success instead of simply standing back and waiting for the teen to fail and then pouncing.
Rewarding good choices means catching your teens being good, acknowledging when they have followed the rules or fulfilled your expectations, especially when you know it was hard for them. That doesn’t mean you have to have a parade and a medal ceremony every time your kid comes home on time, but taking the time to say, “Hey, I really appreciated you texting me at 10:30 to let me know you were heading home instead of waiting for me to remind you to head out. That was really thoughtful” can make all the difference.
St Francis de Sales is credited with the saying that we can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It turns out that’s not just good advice for evangelism. It’s good advice for parenting! For more ways to make your parenting life easier and more effective, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids (2nd Ed. Revised and Expanded).