Gambling Addicts, Debate, and the Role of a Parent
If your friend was a gambling addict, you might play Monopoly at your birthday instead of blackjack or go on a ski trip instead of a Vegas getaway. In other words, you’d keep your friend away from situations that are difficult to resist.
Well, like gambling addicts, teenagers are hardwired to find certain situations irresistible.
How Teens’ Brains Anticipate Rewards
Researchers at UCLA put people in a brain scanner and let them make bets and win or lose money. Results revealed that teens showed more activation in their ventral striatum, an area of the brain associated with the anticipation of rewards, compared to children and adults. This is actually a good thing in many ways.
One day during high school, my younger brother saw a poster for the speech and debate club in the hallway and decided on the spot to walk into the classroom and sign up. For a kid who struggled with a speech impediment his whole life, this was a crazy thing to do.
But he now says that it was one of the best decisions of his life. He ended up winning fourth place in the state championship that year and transforming from a shy kid who lacked confidence to an articulate teen who was not afraid to speak out.
Without the hyperactive reward circuitry of the teenage years, he never would have stepped into that classroom.
The Role of a Parent
But of course, this reward sensitivity isn’t always a good thing. As a parent, your job is to essentially save teens from their own brains.
Just as you would keep a gambling addict away from casinos and blackjack games, you need to keep your teen away from exciting situations that can carry serious consequences. Joining the debate team is fine. Hanging out with opposite-sex friends unsupervised—maybe not.
Yesterday, we saw the importance of addressing issues with your teen immediately, as soon as you notice them. So, if you want a behavior to change, you probably need a new policy.
Deciding on a New Policy
If it’s your teen’s first infraction, an appropriate response might be to discuss the issue, let them know the behavior is not acceptable, make it clear there will be consequences if it happens again, and move on. But if you caught your teen lying to you or if it’s an issue you’ve discussed before, the behavior is unlikely to change after a simple conversation.
One thing to consider is the social environment. Studies show the strongest source of influence on teenage risk behaviors is the peer group. So, if your teen went to hang out with some cousins for the weekend and did some partying, you might not have anything to be worried about. When they return to their regular peer group, the behavior is unlikely to continue.
But if your teen’s peer group sees partying as common and acceptable, then chances are good that your teen is partying regularly and will continue partying. This is not because your teen is bad or sneaky. It’s a product of their brain development.
How to Put This into Practice
It’s a good idea to give your teen two to three options and allow them to decide which policy to implement. For instance, if you found marijuana in your teen son’s room and you know that his friends are all smoking pot, some options might be:
1. He moves to a different high school where he is no longer able to hang out with this peer group.
2. He stays at his current school but agrees to undergo weekly drug tests to remove the temptation to smoke when he is hanging out with these friends.
3. He signs up for structured activities after school, where attendance will taken.
Any of these would be acceptable because they all save your teen from his own brain.
But these options might sound a bit drastic. You may be thinking that your teen would never accept something like this.
Don’t worry, I have a scientific seven-step formula for communicating your new policy to your teen.
We’ll cover that in the rest of the course. Tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to the basics of creating lasting behavioral change in your teen.
Thanks for reading!
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