You may remember watching a VHS tape as a teenager that showed the very, very bad and gruesome things that can happen when you drive too fast on highways. To raise safe drivers, it seemed to be believed, you needed to give them nightmares for months.
Growing up in the ‘80s, my childhood was filled with such scare tactics — car accident remnants displayed on the school lawn, police officers giving lectures about gaol time, and that damn fried egg commercial that aired in between all my afternoon cartoons.
Was any of it very effective at helping us make better choices? Not at all, according to research-based observations by Jess Shatkin, the author of Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks and How We Can Keep Them Safe.
“It’s absolutely clear that our efforts at teaching adolescents how to think about risk have generally had little impact upon their risk-taking behaviour and have often made things worse.” (American anti-drug program D.A.R.E., in particular, showed evidence of having a boomerang effect — telling a certain type of kid not to do something may have resulted in him doing it out of spite.)
It has a lot to do with how teenage brains are wired. In the bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman describes the two types of thought processes important for decision making: The fast System 1 (intuitive, automatic, emotion-based, reward-driven) and the slow System 2 (effortful, analytical, conscious).
When teaching teens about risky behaviour in the past, adults have tried to appeal to System 2, but that thought process can only be built through maturity and experience, things that teenagers have not yet developed.
Instead, Shatkin explains that parents should instead try to appeal to the part of teenage brains that is working just fine — the ventral striatum, or “their big neuronal reward centre”.
Anxiety in adolescents is on the rise, reports the New York Times. It is now the most common reason university students request counselling services, and numerous surveys indicate that kids in high school and university are feeling overburdened and overwhelmed. Hospital admissions for suicide attempts in the US have doubled in the last decade, and Times describes in-patient facilities for severely anxious teens.
“Threatening adolescents with death is not terribly effective in most cases,” he writes. Teens want to know the benefits will be for making good choices. Shatkin gives some examples of how parents can change their language. These are called “positive opposites”:
- Do say: “Study hard in school so that you can apply to any college you like,” but don’t say: “If you don’t study hard, you won’t get into a good college.”
- Do say: “Drive safely tonight, so you can use the car next week,” but don’t say: “If you don’t drive safely, you might get hurt.”
- Do say: “Take your allergy medicine so you can play baseball tomorrow,” but don’t say: “If you don’t take your allergy medicine, your allergies will only get worse.”
A positive opposite, as Shatkin notes, tells a child what to do, instead of what not to do.
“By focusing on shared values that parents and their adolescents both embrace, like being a good friend, positive opposites can encourage safe behaviour,” he writes.
“If your teen is going out with a group of friends or attending a party, for example, encouraging restraint and sobriety is not likely to be very effective. In other words, ‘don’t drink’ is likely to fall on deaf ears. But you may motivate your daughter to keep from drinking (or limit her drinking) by tapping into the values of friendship and loyalty. By staying sober, she can help and protect her friend, for example, who often drinks to excess and gets in trouble.”
It’s important to anticipate the dangers and be ready for them, Shatkin explains. He writes parents should “take Wayne Gretzky’s advice and skate to where the puck will be”.