Ep 57: Your Teen on Power

Episode Summary

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!

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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.

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Effectively Bribe Your Teen:

As author and neuroscientist Erin Clabough discussed with me, bribes and bribing can be an incredibly effective way to influence and change a teen’s behavior – it just has to be done right. The best way to do this is actually by consulting with your teen on what the bribe should be. First, identify and jot down three the behaviors you would either like to see decreased or increased. Perhaps you’d like you teen to spend less time on Netflix and do one nice thing a week for each of their siblings. Next, speak with your teen about what sorts of rewards would motivate them. The example Erin provided was a father who gave his teen daughter $1000 if she didn’t drink until age 21. Once your teen has come up with what would motivate them, put in place a “rewards system,” aka a systematic bribe, for your teen to work within.
For instance if you want your teen to stop watching so much Netflix, and your teen says they want a car, decide on the exact reward system together: 0 hours of Netflix for a week = +$100 toward a car, only 2 hours of Netflix for a week = +$50 toward a car. As other interviewers suggest, work on one behavior change for a few weeks before incorporating the next.

2.  Identify When Your Teen Can’t Handle the Power & Mediate It:

(Members Only)

3. Create Experiential Learning Opportunities:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The book is Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control.

Andy: This book combines your experiences as a parent with this really deep knowledge of how the brain works and how the brain kind of develops and so I’m curious, did you know for forever that you wanted to write this book and just kind of like finally got around to it, or was it something that made you from your research or something that made you say, “Hey, I got to write this book,” or what?

Erin: I think that this book is the product of frustration honestly, because I think that I never intended to set out and write a book, but when I had my first child, I was in graduate school and struggling to do this work-life balance, and in the lab I was growing neurons in a dish and I was seeing how they connect to each other, and I was generating animal models of degeneration and trying to figure out how we can make things better with neurons connecting together, and then I’d go home and I would try to do the mom thing. Well, sometimes he would be like in lab with me, like in a little baby backpack, right, because I’m trying to do this work life balance.

Erin: So I think that they were really separate for me for a couple years and I didn’t quite make the connection that what I was doing in the lab was so relevant to what I was doing when I was trying to grow a human, and so I was looking just like every other parent for resources and reading all the Babywise and Baby Whisperer and all these kinds of books to do it right because every parent wants to do the best way they possibly can.

Erin: And I think that I never found the book that I needed, which would have been evidence-based, completely grounded in science, but focused on love and respect. And those two things seem so disparate, like how do you get those things to fit together? But in my life, that was my journey as a parent, is how do I get the basic knowledge that I have to fit together with these high ideals of love and peace and how do you help someone be successful and happy?

Andy: There’s a picture on page 33 here, that it looks like you have taken that shows spines growing on a neuron, what the heck is a spine and why is it important for a parent to know how it works?

Erin: The reason it’s important, we’ll start there, is because it shows how dramatically plastic brains are and what it is, is it’s kind of a structural representation of how neurons connect together. Everyone knows we’ve got neurons and they line up in pathways and make circuits and a lot of people know things about the synapse, which is the space in between two neurons and that neurotransmitters connect these two neurons together by passing signals between them in the synapse. But what’s really cool about the spine is the spine is actually a protrusion on one side of the receiving neuron that gets the input from the sending neuron and these spines are really adaptable and sometimes they’re going to be just growing or shrinking based on the developmental processes that we’re going through and it’s genetically regulated, but oftentimes it’s responding to experiences in the world around us or the experiences that we have as people.

Erin: And so these spines can become stronger or they can wither away and they get stronger when you use the pathways that the spines are involved in and they’ll wither away if you stop using those pathways, and the picture and the book was taken, it’s from a mouse. So what’s really cool about neuroscience is the way that neurons work in kind of lower organisms. They follow the exact same rules as the way that neurons work in humans.

Erin: So these mouse neurons that I was looking at under the microscope had been taken using a model of fetal alcohol syndrome in mice, and so we were looking at the spines on these neurons and seeing how a bad exposure such as alcohol really early in life, how it could impact how these spines look. And it’s interesting that there’s a lot of research that shows that good experiences can work in the same way on spines, where it can support the spines that you want to see stick around and so this book became a ideas of how you can get the things that you really want to stick around, like empathy and self-control or creativity, how you can use what we know about spines and how neurons get stronger in the pathways that they have to bolster those skills in behavior.

Andy: So I think it’s cool just to see this visual in the book and just how fast it happens was something that struck me reading this, because sometimes as a parent, it feels like, wow, you’re just not making any progress and you just start repeating the same things over and over and over and over again, and it’s cool to see that even just on a neurological level that just doing something a couple of times, changes are already starting to happen in there and those new connections are already starting to form and so, you are making a difference.

Andy: A big thing that I try to focus on here is values and how do you teach values [inaudible 00:00:06:15], because what a lot of parents want to do is try to talk the kid into it, I think. This is like a big theme that I’m noticing is they try to go into explain mode and logic mode, but kind of what you point out and what follows from what we’re talking about here I think with the spines, is that if you can just get him to start doing it, you don’t even need to talk them into it. If you can just get him to do it over and over again, then those pathways start to get strengthened in their brain and before you know it, they just have kind of internalized that value.

Erin: Yes, and that was something that surprised me, honestly, when I was going through this literature, is that bribing if done right, actually kind of works. Or just more like structured practice that you encourage them to do in whatever way works and I know we’ve been taught that bribing is a terrible way to foster development of a child, and I do think it can be done really poorly, but if you know a lot about brain development, I think there’s a story in the book about a researcher who gave his daughter a thousand dollars if she didn’t try any drugs until she was 21, because he knew exactly what was going to happen on a synoptic level. It’s a learning experience when you have a drug come into your brain and he wanted to delay that as much as possible. There’s so much research that shows that the later you take your first drink, the less likely you are to become an alcoholic.

Erin: So things like this were parents actually, if you just think of yourself as placing experiences in the way of your child, the ones that you want them to have to go through, or kind of holding experiences away from them that you don’t know that they’re ready for yet, it kind of puts a different structure to being a parent and seeing what’s important.

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Andy: Talking about bribes, I wanted to see if we could talk about these two points that you make it here on the next page, 191, which is how to make bribes work. You mentioned these two things, trust matters and the reward matters. So how can we use those two concepts to do bribes in the right way and not the wrong way?

Erin: Yeah. I think it’s a really important question because we all know that you can do them in really poor ways and they can end up backfiring on you and you end up with a child who’s manipulating the system instead of a child who’s learning how the system works in a positive way. So I think the trust matters is there because I think we have to be extraordinarily consistent as parents. And so if you intermittently reward or don’t reward behaviors, or if you value some things at some points better than others, then they’ll get reinforcement intermittently from you. Those things are difficult as a child to navigate.

Erin: So I think it’s really important that if you promise something that you deliver and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, so that they learn the rules of this small life that we’re building for them within our own families, that they’re as consistent as possible so that they can make their efforts focused more towards how they can be successful rather on learning the system.

Erin: Because if you think about it, like if you’re playing basketball and the rules were changing all the time, you would never be able to be a really successful basketball player because you wouldn’t know exactly what you needed to do to get the points, right? So that’s why the consistency is important and that’s important from day one, as soon as you have a newborn, trying to be as consistent and nurturing as possible.

Erin: And the second one, I think taps into this idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. So what is coming from you as a value and what is coming from your child as a value. What do you do if those two things don’t match up, and how can you have conversation where you end up having shared values? So this is where this reward matters. So I would say the best way to do this, particularly in teenagers is to allow them to identify the trouble areas that need some help and then allow them to decide what they think would work best for them to make those behaviors better and then allow them to choose what their reward is going to be.

Erin: So, you know that they’re motivated to get it. They feel like no one’s trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do. They’re coming up with the entire structure and then your job is just to say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” or, “No, I don’t think that’s going to work and let’s modify this one thing.” It allows them to have total power and total control while you still get what you want. And I think for kids that are teenagers, especially having that power means that they’re able to do it for the good of just doing it. They feel like they’re in control and for teenagers, you know how they push? Pushing, trying to get out of this. You’re allowing them to push in a way that’s good, towards something that they want and you want.

Andy: Okay. So I love that you brought up power because power comes up in a number of places throughout the book. And it’s like a big, a big thing for me. It’s like, I think it’s one of the three things that I teach with teenagers. The core needs are love, independence and power that I teach parents about. You got to understand these three things with teenagers. And so I learned some stuff in this book about power and I wonder if we could talk a little bit about how, okay you have a couple of situations in here where you will kind of specifically boost power to make kids feel more powerful in certain situations, and then I also noticed that you had certain situations where you actually kind of like reduce their power or gave power to the other kid kind of on purpose.

Andy: So could you talk a little bit about when and why you might do that kind of a thing with teenagers?

Erin: Yeah. And I think the reducing someone’s power in some ways works better when you have multiple kids, because you can be in charge of the balance more. But I would say if we’re taking an example of an oldest child, the oldest child probably is going to be normally the one that needs the power the most, because they’re most used to having it. They have younger siblings and they kind of have had a little bit more of an adult role for some of their life.

Erin: So when I think about power, I think about making it so that somebody feels that whatever behavior they’re doing, they’re giving it instead of having somebody taking it from them. And this is really important when it comes to empathy and kindness because you can’t make somebody be those things, you just have to set the stage so that they feel like they’re full enough and have gotten enough themselves that they can afford to give to somebody else, they can afford to be compassionate and to be kind and that space is there for them to be able to feel the benefits of it.

Erin: But if you pointed at a kid and say, “Share this now. Give your sister a ride to school. I gave you this car,” or whatever it is, you’re going to get push back, right? So this idea of power, you know what, it’s your decision if you take your sister to school or not, in the car that I bought you, but if you don’t, you need to see the impact, she’s going to have to take the bus and people are going to make fun of her, or whatever the situation is, this idea about giving them boosts whenever possible makes it so that when there’s no power for them or they’re in bad situations, they don’t push back as hard because they have a reserve to pull from, a reserve that they know that they’ve been independent, that they are competent to do things. They can make their own decisions.

Erin: Because this whole power where you want someone to feel empowered, knowing that there’s going to be tons of situations in their life where they’re going to walk into the cafeteria and there’s going to be no one to sit with. They’re going to be in a powerless position. Where they’re in a disciplinary situation at school with a administrator who doesn’t understand. That is a powerless position. But these things are small too. They’re these little moments of sitting in the driveway when your sister’s late and you’re annoyed and you’re honking the horn, do you wait for her? Do you have empathy for her? You have power to make that decision. The repercussions are going to be just personal. They’re not going to be the mom coming in and taking the car away.

Erin: And what I’ve noticed with my kids is when we do this and they’re in that situation, they almost always do the kind, right thing. And when they don’t do it and they have to see the fallout from it, they learn, they don’t do that again. It’s interesting, you’d think that they would do the rude thing. They’d take the biggest cookie every single time, but they don’t always do that because it feels good to give.

Erin: But the first couple times, and is rough as parents, because you have to see them make the wrong choice and all the fallout that happens from it. But you just have to keep letting them have the choice and scaffolding what happened and what they could have done differently and what do you think would have happened if you had waited? Or what if you hadn’t honked the horn 18 times and woke up the neighbor, right?

Erin: There’s so many implications and this is where the creativity kind of comes into it too, is you got to be able to talk through, they got to be able to sit in the driveway and think through all the options, what’s going to happen if I do this? What’s going to happen if I do that? And that’s self-regulation, right?

Andy: Yeah. And once you can get them doing it, then they start building those spines. And if you can get them to be doing it on their own then…

Erin: Then your job’s done.

Andy: One other thing about power that I thought was so interesting was a study that you talk about in this book that had to do with monkeys, and it involved social power and it involved monkeys that were lower on the social ladder were more likely to become addicted to cocaine than monkeys who are socially on top. Why is that the case? And what does that teach us about power and our own kids and teenagers.

Erin: I know. This was such a cool study. So they basically are measuring dopamine levels. What they’re saying is that being socially on top is rewarding and that we as humans have a drive to do things that are rewarding. Being socially on top is also rewarding. We get a dopamine rush from it. Cocaine, dopamine rush. That’s what the neurotransmitters that it works on. It will release dopamine, or it’ll basically mimic a release of dopamine. So that taps into reward pathways and it also is highly addictive.

Erin: And so this study showed that basically, if you give monkeys free access to cocaine, that the ones that are socially more dominated by others, so therefore they don’t have a dopamine boost from being socially on top, will find that dopamine boost elsewhere. So they will be more likely to administer cocaine to themselves than the ones who are in charge.

Erin: And so for me, this was really important. It basically said your children are going to find a dopamine rush somewhere. It’s important. We’re designed to identify with this, to want it. It feels good. And it’s kind of our job as parents to make sure that they get it in ways that are healthy. Right? So if creativity in some ways can give dopamine rushes, we need to be able to make space for them to do that. If empathy can do that, there’s so many studies that show how rewarding it feels to be compassionate and to be the person who is the bigger person, those things feel good.

Erin: So if we can tap into those kinds of things, especially in a situation like high school, where there’s only going to be a couple of people at the top of that social ladder. That is power. And that monkeys or teenagers or humans that don’t have that social power, they’re going to have a need there. That need is for love, obviously, but that need is also for the reward, that dopamine rush that you get when you are competent at what you do, when people look up to you, when you have power over other people.

About Erin Clabough

Erin Clabough is one smart lady: she received her PhD from the University of Virginia, specializing in molecular genetics of neurodegeneration and now runs a research lab while also maintaining an assistant professor position. In addition to being an author, Erin currently writes for Psychology Today, mindbodygreen, TODAY Parenting, to name a few, and if that weren’t enough, she is also a mother of four.

Want More Erin Clabough?

You can find Erin through her website as well as on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.