Let s face it: theres no magic pill or panacea for parenting the moody, brooding and unpredictable hormonal growing bodies we fondly refer to as teenagers. And every parent has their own bag of tips and tricks they resort to for motivating their teens to do something (clean their room, eat a healthy meal, finish their homework) or not do something (drinking at a party, staying out past curfew, driving over the speed limit).
More often than not, these behaviours are enforced with punishments such as taking away privileges, grounding, increased chores or revoking internet or TV time. But a new study has found the exact opposite could be much more effective in changing teenage behaviour. The research indicates rewarding positive behaviours and offering incentives for a job well done, is much more in tune with how teenagers operate than punishing bad behaviour.
Why do teenagers respond better to positive incentives?
The study, published in PLOS computational biology, found while adults learned symmetrically from both reward and punishment, adolescents learned from reward but were less likely to learn from punishment. This tendency to rely on rewards and not to consider alternative consequences of actions might contribute to our understanding of decision-making in adolescence.
The authors attributed this finding to the still-developing adolescent brain which doesn’t evolve in perfect symmetry. In fact, the part of the brain that processes punishment and consequences takes longer to fully develop. The authors hypothesised this was why the adults in the study used different thinking strategies to learn the task. They highlighted it wasn’t merely a case of teenagers lacking motivation or attention span.
What does this mean for teenage learning?
We know adolescents are adventure-seekers, risk-takers, novelty-chasers and very curious. It makes sense they are seeking ways to stimulate the reward centres of their brain and have little regard for the negative consequences many of which they may not fully understand or anticipate (or care about!). How many times have you found yourself saying to your teen think what could have happened if and wondering if your message fell on deaf ears?
The authors also note the findings may have implications for education, as it stands to reason praising positive performance in class will have more gravitas with teens that punishing the negative.
What does this mean for teenagers and drug use?
If adolescents are more motivated by positive rewards, then parents can contribute to growing more successful and happy teens by rewarding them for positive and healthy behaviours. These rewards don’t have to be material possessions, but can come in the form of verbal praise and emotional support. Next time you’re fighting an uphill battle and want to threaten you child with grounding or confiscating focus on what they are doing well and let them know about it.
So I should bribe my child for being sober?
No this doesn t mean you should give your child $20 every time they come home sober and not stoned! Rewards should be reasonable and match the behaviour you are rewarding. That could mean increasing curfew by half an hour if your child comes home consistently on time, or buying them a new pair of shoes if they keep their room clean for a month without you having to nag them about it.
Want more help for parenting teenagers and discouraging drug use?
For more information on how to talk to your teenagers about drugs, for advice from other parents, and for video tips, head over to the NCPIC parents section here.