Why Bright Teens Make Irrational Choices

Decisions, Dieting, women.

Few things are more difficult for parents than watching their capable teen appear apathetic and disinterested in things that they should care about. I know it can be a helpless feeling but I’ve got a few suggestions that might help.

Why Intelligent Teens Make Irrational Choices

Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, we now know the biggest driver of teen behavior is the enhanced feeling of pleasure that comes from the release of higher than normal levels of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that gives us the experience of satisfaction in response to experiences. A delicious plate of food, sex, a good workout, achieving a challenging goal are all examples of experiences that produce dopamine for most of us. The difference for adolescents is that they experience more of it than either adults or children. What feels good to us, feels great to them. As a result, they’re much more drawn to any experience that results in a squirt of dopamine.

Why Teens Often Feel Unmotivated

Does your teen seem unmotivated in important ways? It’s probably not due to a lack of information. They probably got the memo that school is very important, will impact their future, that you’ll be disappointed and there will be negative consequences for doing poorly. One problem is that teens typically undervalue the consequences of their behavior if they’re thinking of them at all. Instead they’re more ruled by what’s going to feel great now. So given the choice between homework and video games or Netflix, the decision becomes easy to make. Since the teen brain is so sensitive to experiences, it can get in a rut really easily. The good news is that it can get out of a rut relatively easily as well.

3 Things You Can Do To Help

  1. Find opportunities to praise your teen’s effort, determination, kindness and problem solving.  The same rush of dopamine that comes in response to technology, drugs, alcohol and sex is experienced in response to social rewards (praise) as well. If you’re going through a particularly hard time with your teen, it may be difficult to find these positive traits, but they’re there and you just have to work hard to find them.

  1. Limit technology but don’t take it away. Adolescents need technology to communicate, learn and become healthy digital citizens of the future. But they need boundaries and help learning how to use it responsibly.  A major problem affecting motivation and judgement for most teens is inadequate sleep. Having a phone in their room at bedtime only makes this problem worse. Instead of taking away the phone as a consequence, involve your teen in a proactive family decision to leave all phones outside of bedrooms after a certain time.

  1. Get your teen out of the house and engaged in prosocial activities. Good ideas and intentions aren’t helpful without action. Teen’s need to experience positive feelings and realistic praise from people not called mom or dad. Positive activities like sports, art, music, science clubs or anything else build social skills, confidence, resilience and increases motivation that spills into other areas of life.

If this topic resonates with you and you’d like a lot more information, strategies and tips, I hope you’ll come to my workshop on February 18th called Overcoming the Digital Age to Reach Your Teen. I’ll be offering the first of a 3-part workshop series to help parents with teens and preteens. I’ll be able to answer your specific questions and you’ll get a ton of value including handouts and resources. I get how hard it can be to make time for these things but if you can swing it I think you’ll be glad you came.

Where: Friendly House Community Center. 1737 NW 26th Ave. Portland, OR.
When: February 18th, March 17th, April 7th6:30-8:45.
Cost: $45 Individuals, $80 Couples. $110 Individual for all three. $200 for couples for all three. Sliding scale is available.
Who: Parents of teens/tweens, teachers, counselors, and anyone else interested in understanding and motivating teens.

I hope to see you at one or all of these events!