Teenagers, Neuroscience, and Dog Poop
Hello and welcome to my course on talking to teenagers about tough topics!
What kinds of “tough topics” do I mean here, exactly?
Well, among the thousands of parents and teenagers I’ve worked with in my research, there are certain key trends that emerge over and over again:
• drug/alcohol use
• attitude problems
Our lab at Loyola Marymount University has conducted studies on every aspect of parent-teen communication. We’ve spent years analyzing how parents can connect with teens, increase their influence, and make a positive impact. We took a scientific approach to identifying tools that work. Together, we’ve published nearly 200 peer-reviewed papers on teenage behavior and parent influence.
We’ve found that parent-teen communication is difficult because it requires a new set of skills. It isn’t that these new skills are hard or complicated—they’re just different. But many parents think they can keep using the same strategies that worked in childhood. This course is not about earlier curfews, more drug and alcohol lectures, and less freedom on social media; it’s about changing the way you communicate.
Over the next ten days, you’ll learn a simple, science-based system for getting through to teenagers about important issues.
But before we get into all that sciency stuff, we need to talk about dog poop.
The Neuroscience of Dog Poop
Imagine you bought a brand-new puppy yesterday, leave it in the house alone while you go to work today, and then find a big pile of poop on your living room floor when you get home. What do you do?
Most people will scold the puppy and punish it somehow. But neuroscience says that that probably won’t do any good. As gross as it sounds, you might want to stick your finger in the poop and see how warm it is. Because a dog owner who understands neuroscience would actually discipline the dog differently depending on the temperature of the poop.
Warm poop means the incident happened fairly recently. Punishment might be a viable option in this case. But if the poop is cold, then it probably doesn’t do any good to punish your puppy because this means he likely pooped on the floor hours ago. If you punish the puppy when the poop is cold, he won’t understand why he’s being punished!
At its core, all learning involves neural connections. When you learn new things, your brain is building, strengthening, or weakening the links between various constellations of brain cells. As a dog owner, you want to create links between pooping neurons and getting punished neurons in your dog’s brain, so your dog learns that pooping on the floor is not good.
But the farther apart two things (like poop and punishment) get in time and space, the more difficult it becomes for your brain to connect them. When you punish your dog six hours later, the pooping neurons and the getting punished neurons don’t link together very efficiently.
Takeaways for Teenagers
Similarly, when an issue emerges with your teen, it’s best to address it right away. Hopefully, your teen isn’t pooping on the floor, but there are certainly going to be times when you notice your teen doing things that are not okay with you.
Maybe you find some drugs in his room. Or see her posting something unacceptable on social media. Or find out he’s been skipping class. Or picking on other kids at school. When something like this happens, it is best to address the issue immediately. Your goal should be to communicate to your teen that the behavior you noticed was not okay and that they need to change this behavior in the future.
The most effective way to do this is to institute a new policy with your teen. But how do you know what your new policy should be? And what is the best way to get your teenager to accept it without argument?
Stay tuned. The answers are coming up next in Lesson 2.
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