I am often asked whether the consensus-building system I teach will work with teenagers. The short answer is, “Yes indeed!” In fact, one of my students in Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies took my course for the specific purpose of learning to communicate better with her son.
This system is interest driven, and it is important to remember that we enjoy better success when we address the interests another person actually has, rather than the interest we believe he should have.
A recent item in Psychology Today made an interesting analysis of the interests behind teen risk-taking. Contrary to popular belief, teenagers’ primary attraction to fast driving, for example, is not the thrill. The interests driving such behavior are hard-wired and powerful. With the advent of puberty comes a heightened push for acceptance and status. These things, in turn, relate to the newly-awakened drive to compete and attract potential mates.
Kids who take risks make an impression on other kids, and they know it. Therefore, trying to dissuade them from reckless driving, drinking or smoking by pointing out the dangers doesn’t work. In fact, when we portray those activities as dangerous, we only enhance their attraction for a child who feels compelled to make an impression by facing danger. In other words, when we address the interests we believe the kids ought to have, our efforts can backfire.
Instead, some people have found greater success by tying the desired behavior to the teenagers’ actual interests, acceptance and status. One successful anti-drinking campaign depicts a drunken teenager making a fool of himself in front of others, along with the message, “Don’t be that guy.” Emphasis on the social advantages of not smoking, likewise, works better than emphasis on the health advantages.
Both of these approaches have succeeded because they address the kids’ actual interests, rather than the interests well-meaning adults believe they should have. True, the health risks of smoking and drinking and the danger of reckless or distracted driving are very real. They can ruin, or even end, someone’s life. But harping on the dangers of these activities with a child whose hardwiring urges him to seek danger is counterproductive.
You, too, can influence a teenager you care about by showing him an example of someone his age, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, acting the buffoon, while others make fun and laugh at him. You can show him a picture of a young man horribly disfigured in a street racing accident and ask your child how many girls would want to date that boy.
But you can bump your efforts up to a higher level if, rather than beginning with these examples, you first ask your child’s take on status and acceptance, and show him you understand. Begin with open questions such as, “How did you feel when you drove fast?” or “How will drinking affect your social life?”
Next, show him you understand by paraphrasing his answers. If he says that, when he was driving fast, he felt a powerful rush, like he could take on anybody, no one could ever push him around, you might say, “So you felt sort of like the top dog, is that right?” If he says that drinking would get him into the cool crowd, the one all the hottest girls hang out with, you could reply, “So you are thinking that you could get better dates if you drank, correct?”
Keep paraphrasing until the teen agrees that you’ve got his points and seems to warm to you in appreciation of your understanding. Now, when you show him, or tell him about, the examples, use his words or concepts. If you show him the picture of the boy who was maimed in a racing accident, you could say, “How easy would it be to push this guy around?” With the example of the boy who gets drunk and makes a fool of himself, you can ask, “What kind of girls do you think would date him?”
In short, when you reign in your (very understandable) impulse to lecture him about danger, and converse with him the same way you would in applying your consensus and persuasion skills with an adult, you just might find that child responds more like an adult.