Ep 57: Your Teen on Power

Erin Clabough joins us for a discussion on the importance of giving teens the right amount of power...and making sure they know how to use it! Instilling a value of empathy is key to making sure teens wield power fairly. And how do you do that? Erin says bribing is an option!

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Full show notes

Your Punk Kid

Do you ever have moments where you look at your teen and think “Wow, sometimes you can be a total jerk.” While you love them, sometimes they do things that are so vile, you wonder if they are even your kid! Maybe when teaching teens responsibility, your kid becomes a complete tyrant with even the smallest bit of power. All you did was tell your teen they’re in charge of dropping off their sibling at school and suddenly, they fly into a rage if their sibling is even a minute late walking out the door.

As a parent, you want to be teaching teens responsibility without giving them free reign to take advantage of you at every turn. When they ask you permission to do fun things, you genuinely want to say yes more often than no, but if you give them an inch, they’re certainly going to take a mile. This is one of the biggest fears that comes with teaching teens responsibility. Your teen thinks that because you said they can go on a weekend trip with their boyfriend, it’s ok for them to come home from his house at 2am on any given weekend. Or because you let your teen borrow your nice new car once, they’re allowed to start offering rides to their friends all the time.

When teaching teens responsibility, parents should focus on helping their kid learn to take charge and be a leader while also maintaining respect and empathy for others. Obviously this is a hard task. Simultaneously encouraging teens to be assertive and patient requires a level of restraint that most teenagers might not have. For example, you want them to advocate for themselves when their voice isn’t being heard but not demand too much and come off as difficult. So how do you go about teaching teens responsibility in regards to balancing their power? In today’s episode, I discuss this with Erin Clabough, PhD. She is a neurologist, professor, and the author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control. Dr. Clabough has written articles for Psychology Today, Mind Body Green, and Today Parenting about how an understanding of neuroscience can help parents teach their teens how to balance authority with empathy.

Don’t be Spineless!

Before authoring her first book on teaching teens responsibility, Dr. Clabough was working in a neurology lab studying the spines found within neurons inside the brain. While observing how neurotransmitters in spines connect each individual neuron together by passing signals between them using synapses, she had a realization. She could use this process of passing signals between neurons in spines as a model for parenting. Dr. Clabough explains how the spines adapt to experiences going on in their external environment. Positive experiences that bring about happy emotions enable a spine to create new connections, or synapses, between neurons in the brain. In a human, this could be exemplified by a child growing up with parents who are supportive and accepting. The love from their parents creates a comfortable environment for the child to grow up in and therefore promotes healthy brain development. On the other hand, traumatizing or damaging experiences can stunt brain growth. For example, a child whose parents went through a rocky divorce may have stunted brain growth because this event made them feel uncomfortable in the environment they were growing up in. During the time of the divorce, the lack of stability resulting from parents who refuse to have a civil relationship can rob a child of the gratification they need to develop new synapses in the brain.

Dr. Clabough decided that the concept of her book would be how parents can use the idea of healthy experiences influencing healthy brain development as a metaphor for encouraging positive behavior and teaching teens responsibility. She explains that the process of synapses forming between neurons could be used as a metaphor for positive moments that occur in your teen’s life being a bridge for them to develop new skills. These moments can be as simple as your teen deciding to spend time with their grandparents instead of going to a party they’ve been excited about for two weeks. Or your teen inviting someone who’s sitting alone to eat lunch with their friends at school. Dr. Clabough emphasizes that parents need to savor these moments and continually commend their teens for making these mature decisions even when they don’t have to. This parental affirmation encourages teens to continually display generosity, which helps them grow into more well-rounded people.

Giving Them the Power

Parents must recognize that teens want control and the only effective way of teaching teens responsibility is to give it to them. But that doesn’t mean they should always be in control. For families with multiple kids, Dr. Clabough recognizes that the oldest child is often given more power than the others because they are seen as the mature one and therefore take on a somewhat parental role towards the other siblings. However, she says it’s extremely important to monitor power amongst your kids. If the oldest gets too accustomed to taking charge, they may develop a large ego or be unwilling to let another sibling ever make decisions for the group. So when you’re traveling together as a family, try asking the middle child where you should all go to lunch. Or when you’re going to the movies, ask the youngest what film you should see. This lets your kid know that it’s ok to take the lead as long as you’re also letting other people have their turn to be in charge.

When teaching teens responsibility by giving their sibling the ability to choose, there will be times when a controlling first born will say “no fair, I got to choose the movie last time!” Or the youngest might say “Just because he’s the oldest doesn’t mean he gets to boss us around!” If your kids put up a fight when control is taken away from them, Dr. Clabough offers suggestions for diffusing the situation in this episode.

Dr. Clabough acknowledges that a desire for power exists not only in the home, it’s also a large part of teenage culture. Social hierarchies form in high school because of teens’ desires for power and influence—which is all rooted in the need for dopamine. Everyone seeks dopamine highs but teenagers in particular have a stronger need for it. When teaching teens responsibility, parents must not discourage their teen’s needs but instead make sure the dopamine rushes they seek are healthy. For example, it’s okay for them to want to be on top, like if they are awarded prom queen or voted most likely to succeed in the school yearbook. But these momentary feelings of power and influence need to be balanced with times when they let others take the spotlight. Experiencing what it's like to be a winner and what it’s like to be on the sidelines is an important part of teaching teens responsibility and empathy.

Empathy is the Answer

The most important thing that you should take away from this interview with Dr. Clabough about teaching teens responsibility is that empathy is your teen’s ticket to becoming a more mature, well-rounded person. If your teen seems to be on power trips often, they might be lacking empathy towards others. In order to increase this sense of empathy, you have to take advantage of times when they make the wrong decision. Dr. Clabough created an acronym called OUT that parents can use to help their teen’s dissect and correct their wrongdoings:
  • O: Own the action. They need to know what they did wrong and take ownership of it.
  • U: Understand how it affected and impacted other people.
  • T: Tell how they will do this differently in the future.
This interview with Dr. Erin Clabough has tons of clever nuggets for teaching teens responsibility and empathy that she learned from her experiences in neurology. Other topics covered in this episode include:
  • How to Intervene When you See an Imbalance of Power
  • The Two Criteria for Rules that Teens Follow
  • Cognitive Empathy and How to Use it
  • Teaching your Teen Self-Regulation Tactics
And that’s not all! Have a listen to this week’s episode featuring Erin Clabough for more insights on managing power and teaching teens responsibility.

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Ep 57: Your Teen on Power
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