Adolescence and Brain Development: Responding to Reward
Updated: Dec 5, 2019
So much has been written -and read!- about the development of very young children, as if once we've got our kids sleeping and eating their vegetables, the battle is over, and yet adolescence presents brand new challenges for parents that are no less rooted in their biological development. Exaggerated activity in the nucleus accumbens relative to pre-frontal cortex activity is one of the important ways adolescents differ from children and adults. The nucleus accumbens is associated with the mind's reward circuit; whereas the pre-frontal cortex is associated with more rational thinking. So during adolescence, there is a strong bias towards immediate gratification, and teens might struggle to make long-term goals, or evaluate the likelihood -or the merits- of their reward. This makes it far more likely that a teen will engage in risky behaviour, like drug or alcohol abuse, or skipping school. (1)
This research contradicts the popular myth that teenagers are willing to take risks because they think they are invincible. So, what does this mean for parents? It means "scared straight" tactics like telling your children they'll get an STD if they have sex or sharing horror stories about the kid who went out and did acid and was never the same again, aren't effective deterrents. Teenagers understand perfectly well the risks involved with their behaviour; they have just determined that the rewards are greater. Parents who want to help their kids make safe and appropriate choices, must focus on the positive. Here are some suggestions:
Learn what rewards motivate your child. Is it praise, privileges, connection? This will probably require a little trial and error, but when you find something effective, run with it.
Think in terms of positive short term consequences. If you want to encourage your child to study, don't bother telling them that they' will never get into college if they don't work harder; remind them instead that if they study for a few hours, their grades will improve.
Praise your child whenever s/he acts responsibly or shows good judgement. In an earlier blog, I called this "Speaking the Behaviour You Want."
Be patient. Sometimes a teenager might not respond to positive rewards immediately, especially if they've been over -criticized, or are overcritical themselves. In this case the positive might not seem possible at first, but if you hang in there, they will come around.