Affirming Autonomy, Reducing Reactance, and Changing the Rules

02.02.2018 |

Episode #9 of the course How to talk to teenagers by Andy Earle


Today, we’ll finally talk about how to implement a new rule with your teen to ensure their behavior will change. But of course, there’s a special way to do this.


The Science of Autonomy

Studies show humans have a need for autonomy. We like to feel that we are making our own decisions and nobody is in control of our behavior except ourselves. This need for autonomy peaks at age 14.

So, when teenagers feel someone is trying to control their behavior, it triggers a mental state called psychological reactance. This leads teens to aggressively resist doing whatever it is they are being asked to do.


Mitigating Reactance

In one recently published paper, I found an innovative solution to the psychological reactance problem. I had students play a game that gave them feedback on their alcohol use. All participants got the exact same feedback. But some students were led to believe I had chosen the feedback for them, while others thought the feedback was randomly selected from a few different topics.

The ones who thought the feedback was randomly selected demonstrated significantly greater reductions in alcohol use and were also less likely to report feeling psychological reactance.

In another recent study, I obtained even larger effects by letting students actually choose the topics of the feedback themselves, submitting and voting on their own topics. So, the less your teen feels like the rules are being dictated by you, the better.


Apply This with Your Teenager

What all of this means is that you need to affirm your teenager’s autonomy in order to get them to go along with whatever new policy you want to implement.

Tell your teenager that they are basically an adult now and you don’t feel like it is your job to control their life anymore. Say something like: “You know yourself better than anyone, and I’m sure you already have an idea about what will work for you and what won’t.”

Then tell your teen that it is going to be up to them to come up with a new policy that will prevent this behavior from continuing to occur in the future.


Give Your Teen Options

Finally, introduce the two to three options you came up with back in Lesson 2. But say that they are just ideas to get your teen started. Make it clear to your teen that if they can come up with something better, you are totally open to discussing it.

The key is to avoid the feeling that you are dictatorially imposing things on your teen. Instead, it should seem like the two of you are collaboratively working toward a solution together. Collaboration doesn’t mean that you have to accept whatever your teen comes up with. The final policy should feel like a combination of your ideas and your teen’s ideas.

During this process, you can use phrases like, “That’s a good idea. But then what will you do if ____ is cancelled one day?” or, “Yes, I like that. But how will it work if there is a time when all your friends are doing ____ together and you can’t go because of this policy?”

Encourage your teen to contribute ideas but push them to refine those ideas.

Finally, make it clear that if this plan that the two of you developed together doesn’t work, this will mean your teen has shown that you (the parent) need to play a larger role in dictating the plan for the time being. So, you will create a new plan that is a bit more strict.

In other words, if you catch your teen doing this behavior again, you will impose harsher rules. Make sure you get your teen to agree that this is fair.

Tomorrow, we will finish the course with a discussion of how to respond if your teen gets angry, yells, or tries to turn this conversation into an argument at any point.




Recommended reading

Giving your teen options is also a great way to get them to do more chores around the house. In this article, you may read more on this approach.


Recommended book

The Irresistible Power of StorySpeak by Nicholas Boothman


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