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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

The Middle School Brain: Why Pleasure is a Better Motivator than Pain

How do we motivate children to make good choices — from avoiding procrastination to acting responsibly with peers? This is a perennial question facing parents. Let me share with you one small-but-powerful bit of research that you might find helpful in navigating life with your middle schooler.

As car insurance companies would be the first to tell you, adolescents are prone to risky behaviors. It’s not that our children are blissfully unaware of the dangers. In fact, research shows that they can identify high-risk behavior quite effectively — at least on paper!

When it comes to actions, however, there’s a gap in brain development.

Part of our brain seeks out exciting, pleasurable sensations; this is the part that gets excited by roller-coasters, good food, and the ding of the text message. As one neuroscientist notes, “Every time an adolescent feels good about something, he gets a dopamine squirt. That’s why adolescents seek out pleasurable experiences, despite the risks.”

Another part of the brain controls our impulses and keeps us from acting rashly — it’s the sensible voice of caution. This part of the brain develops more slowly! As another psychologist put it, adolescent brains have “too much accelerator, not enough brake.”

Luckily, there is some parenting wisdom embedded in this science. Teens seek out risky behavior because it is pleasurable, and that outweighs their concerns about potential pain. Put simply, adolescents are more motivated by pleasure than pain; therefore, focusing on the positive outcomes of good choices is often more powerful than emphasizing the negative consequences of poor choices.

In a Psychology Today article, Nancy Darling explains how she used this nugget of wisdom to help her 13-year-old.

Telling a 13 year old that he will fail a test tomorrow if he doesn’t study isn’t that effective in inducing willing compliance. He knows that. But risk avoidance is not emotionally motivating. And that video game sure is.
Reminding a 13-year-old how good it feels to accomplish something, how happy he’ll be when he does well, and how much more time he will have to play if he studies efficiently works a lot better. Those POSITIVE emotions activate their incentive processing center. And teens are VERY sensitive to pleasure.
So I tried it.
I stopped reminding my son of all the negative consequences of not doing what he was supposed to, and consistently pointed out how good it felt to do the right thing — every positive I could think of. A week later, things are going great.
He’s less anxious. His work has improved. We’ve gotten along better. And he’s taking more responsibility for making good choices. Even choices he doesn’t like (like practicing his violin tonight because he wants a whole day of uninterrupted time on Saturday).

This simple-but-powerful reframing can help adults, too! For example, instead of mentally listing all the negative consequences of not getting enough sleep or exercise, we can remember how great it feels to wake up refreshed and how good we feel after a brisk morning walk. We can model for our kids a positive approach to self-motivation.

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