The blog

Time to Rethink the Script

Working with and parenting teenagers brings challenges to even the most experienced of us. Risk-taking, underdeveloped judgment, and an outsized desire to be accepted by peers contributes to poor decision making and potentially dangerous behaviors. What works to keep kids on the right track and redirect them when they stray?

Providing information is the obvious first step. This can be done directly and factually, and as a culture, we tend to be pretty good at this. By the time adolescents get through middle school they can describe the dangers of marijuana, alcohol, unsafe sex, drunk driving, and so on. For many teens, this is all that’s necessary. But what about those who do experiment, do take chances, and sometimes get caught?

  • Scare Tactics? Nope! Don’t work.
  • Never ending education about dangers: Nope! They’ve heard that already.
  • Lecturing? Nope! They’ll tune you out.
  • Emotionally evocative speakers at school-based assemblies who describe their (eating disorder/drug problem/depression/insert other problem here)? Nope! No evidence this works.
  • Punishment (suspension, grounding)? Nope! Feels satisfying to implement, not very effective in changing behavior. Just look at our prison system.

The answer is much more complex. First of all, “families and influential adults continue to play the most important role in how youth handle the lure of … drugs” (reference). The solution starts with us! No two teenagers are alike and therefore more time and effort are required to determine the cause of behavior, what keeps it going, and what problem the challenging behavior is solving for the teenager. The best and most accurate way to get this information is through collaborative discussion, which occurs in the context of a trusting relationship. Let’s look at some of the factors that may need to be explored in an individualized, compassionate, open-minded talk:

• Modeling
Human beings are wired to desire inclusion and are expert mimics. This need for acceptance is heightened during the teen years. Consider what teens are seeing in their homes, neighborhoods, peer groups, and the larger culture. What does the behavior communicate? When a beloved celebrity touts the benefits of cannabis (or the teen discovers a parent’s stash), does the information provided in health class stand a chance? Not likely.

• Reinforcement
Consider what the behavior gives back. Social acceptance, feeling grown-up, reducing stress in the short term, and engaging and exciting and stimulating behaviors is inherently rewarding. This is why teens ride roller coasters and go to haunted houses! Remember that behavior that is rewarding will continue. If a teen exhibits a pattern of worrisome behaviors, what’s the reward?

• Problem solving
Digging into the problems that are solved by the troublesome behaviors often provides guidance for at least part of the solution. The teen who is trying to reduce stress by smoking marijuana may benefit from learning skills for managing their nervous system. The young person who engages in sneaking out, sexual activity, or substance use to feel included and accepted may benefit from learning more value congruent techniques for acceptance. Young people who are trying to avoid pain by distracting themselves with high sensation activities need to learn skills that are effective in the long term.

All behavior happens for a reason and getting at the unique components that activate a behavior, maintain it, and reward it provides parents, educators, and mental health professionals with clues about how to proceed. There are no easy answers. Raising kids is a labor-intensive, long-term project. Commit the time. Let’s raise a generation of self-aware, skillful, effective, and sensible teenagers.

Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C
Posted 10/19/2020