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The Surprising Role that Self-Regulation Plays in a Successful Adolescence

Have you ever wondered how adolescents survive adolescence? It’s not just the big things—their casual and dangerous experimentation with drugs and sex or their ridiculous drinking games like Edward 40hands. It’s the little things as well, like shoplifting. They almost always have enough money to buy the product, but, as they would explain, “Since I don’t really want it, why would I pay for it?”

To which we would respond in amazement, “Why would you steal something you don’t want?” That answer is actually pretty obvious.  It’s not the product; it’s the emotional rush they get from breaking the rules and impressing their friends. Some of you no doubt remember the dare-devil game from the movie, “The Program,” which teenagers across America seized upon two decades ago.

In case you’ve forgotten, two teenagers, almost always boys and often as part of some initiation ritual, lie down on the center line of a two lane highway in the dead of night until a car whizzes by. What could go wrong with that?  And then there is social media, which only exacerbates the dangers inherent in drinking, driving, and stealing, not to mention sexting and bullying. Is it really any surprise that the leading cause of death among adolescents is unintentional injuries? 

The culprit is the adolescent brain. The best book I’ve read about adolescents is Laurence Steinberg’s Age of Opportunity. Steinberg says adolescence begins biologically with the onset of puberty and ends culturally with the achievement of some adult milestone…like leaving home.

In 1960 adolescence lasted about seven years; today it lasts about fifteen years. You might think of a doubly long adolescence as a curse, but it can be a blessing. It depends on when those years occur and how they are spent. Generally, the later puberty starts AND the later adolescence ends, the bigger the blessing for kids.

That’s because of brain development. When kids enter adolescence, their brains begin to rapidly mature in three areas: their reward system which regulates their experience with pleasure; their relationship system which controls the way they view and think about other people; and their regulatory system which exercises self-control.  All of these systems are highly responsive—both positively and negatively—to stimulation and experience during adolescence. The first two systems, however, which govern rewards and relationships mature sooner than the third system of self-regulation. This is why adolescence is such a dangerous time for teenagers.

While the bad news is that self-regulation comes late in adolescence, the good news is that the brain remains very plastic throughout. It can be molded; it can develop; it can learn; it will mature. We know that we learn through our experiences, and adolescence brings a thirst for experience, an innate desire to go out and explore the world, a desire that is so strong that it even squelches childhood fears. Moreover, the plasticity of the adolescent brain means the more experiences adolescents encounter, the more they learn and grow. Adolescence, therefore, is not only a dangerous time for kids, but it’s also, as Steinberg says, an “age of opportunity.”

Since adolescence is a time when kids are necessarily more attuned to the outside world, it’s no surprise that teenagers face higher emotional highs and lower emotional lows than any other age group. That’s why we remember what happened to us in middle school and high school so clearly. It’s known as the “reminiscence bump” and it occurs because ordinary events trigger stronger emotions, feelings, and understandings in the incredibly plastic brains of teenagers.Researchers have done experiments on teenagers’ brains for years, but more recently they’ve been able to look at various parts of their brains while the teenagers actually make decisions.

One study asked people of different ages to push a button indicating whether they thought an idea was good or not. It turns out that all age groups agreed on what were good ideas and what were bad ideas, but what was noteworthy was that adolescents were slower to reach a decision. They even toyed with whether crazy ideas like “swimming with sharks” or “drinking a can of Drano” might be worth doing. What lit up in adult brains when presented with these crazy ideas was the area of the brain reflecting emotional disgust. What lit up in the adolescents’ brains was the area indicating deliberation.  Teenagers can identify risks, but that doesn’t matter because they’re always more focused on rewards. So what would be the reward of swimming with sharks? The same reward as lying on the center line of a two lane road in the dead of night—the acceptance and admiration of your peers.

We know that when a group of teenagers is riding together in a car with a teenaged driver, the chance of a crash quadruples. Adults driving with passengers, however, are no more likely to be in an accident than adults driving alone. The difference is the result of adolescent peer pressure. This peer pressure is so strong that your child’s peers don’t even have to be with him for him to lose all judgment.

If he simply knows what his friends expect him to do, he will act out and take more risks. And this susceptibility to expectation and peer pressure seems to be hardwired in the brains of all adolescents… even adolescent mice with no ability to form expectations for each other.  When they are raised in peer groups and placed together in a cage with unlimited alcohol, adolescent mice drink more than when they are placed in a cage by themselves or when they are placed in a cage with their peer group as adults. Peer pressure during adolescence is hardwired and non-negotiable.

We know the powerful grip rewards and relationships have on adolescents which is why most well-intentioned education programs—sex education, nutrition education, alcohol, drug, and tobacco education, driver’s education, and more recently internet education—all designed to keep adolescents safe, haven’t worked too well. As Steinberg notes, information in and of itself is not enough to deter risky behavior.  Consider this statistic: about half of all high school students did not use a condom the last time they had sex. Why? They didn’t use a condom because they didn’t have a condom, and they didn’t have a condom because they didn’t plan on having sex. Their emotions hijacked their intelligence. Public service educational programs emphasize knowledge, but again, adolescents run on risky pleasures and relationships.  Adolescents intellectually understand consequences, but they are less worried about them than they are eager to reap the rewards from impressing their friends. 

So what can we do to make adolescence more of an age of opportunity? We need to speed up the more slowly developing self-regulation part of the brain to help our children counter their hardwired affinity for peer pressure. A lot of that responsibility falls on parents, for as Steinberg writes, “The most important environmental contributor to self-regulation is the family.”  I’ve written before about the four basic parenting styles—neglectful, permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian.  Neglectful parents are, well, neglectful…and useless. Authoritarian parents are relatively cold, firm, and psychologically controlling. They put a premium on obedience…think tiger moms. Permissive parents are warm, supportive, and lenient; they emphasize happiness, but their kids become more oriented to their peers than to them. Not helpful. Authoritative parents are the ideal. They balance and blend involvement and independence to develop self-direction. Their goal is to orchestrate a smooth transition from external to internal control by being warm, firm, and supportive. Let’s think about what that means, how it looks, and why it works.

Parental warmth allows kids to become calm and secure and to learn to trust that the world is a safe and good place. This calm, secure confidence allows them to transition away from their parents more easily and to explore the world around them more fully as adolescents.

So what are the keys to being a warm parent?  Affection and attention.  Steinberg is adamant that you cannot love your children too much nor shower them with too much affection. Warm parents, however, not only love their children unconditionally, they are also involved in their children’s lives. They know their friends and their friends’ parents, attend school events and extracurricular activities, talk casually, often, and non-judgmentally with their kids about all kinds of issues and ideas, and most importantly, listen to them.  Warm parents don’t raise spoiled or needy kids.  The affection and attention they lavish raises confident, controlled, self-regulated kids.   

Being firm includes providing structure, clarity, and consistency. “Structure imposed by rules and limits doesn’t make children feel bad,” Steinberg writes. It “makes children feel safe.” Being firm, however, is more than providing structure. It also includes being clear. We may think our children understand our expectations, but while many teenagers may actually look like adults, very few think like adults.  For them to develop self-regulation, we have to be clear about what we expect of them…and what is unacceptable. Being firm also includes being consistent. It has long been rumored that the activity which correlates most strongly with children becoming Merit Scholars is eating dinner with their families every night. I doubt that eating food together makes much difference. I suspect what does make a difference, though, is the depth and honesty of the conversations warm parents have with their children during those dinners together.

In addition to being warm and firm with our kids, we need to show them support. Being supportive includes being fair and adaptable. Sometimes our kids outgrow our expectations of what they can do. We get stuck in a time warp and don’t see the growth they’ve made. We still see them as wide-eyed little children instead of adolescents who have embarked on a necessary mission of self-discovery. We forget that it is, after all, their job to grow up, leave home, and be their own people.

And we forget that it is our job to support this, not resist or derail it. Being supportive also includes being kind.  Harsh punishment—physical or verbal—slows self-regulation. All kids mess up, and when they do, it needs to be viewed as a learning opportunity. We need to talk with our children about what they did wrong, the impact of their behavior on others, an alternative way for them to have dealt with the issue, and what they learned from the experience. What we shouldn’t do is ignore, excuse, cover up, take responsibility for, or try to fix their mistakes; instead, we  should support our children by helping them take responsibility for and learn from what they did. 

Parents have a huge role in developing self-regulation but so do schools. One of the most important jobs of teachers is to help their students develop their non-cognitive skills. These skills include things like conscientiousness and collaboration, persistence and perseverance, drive and determination, self-regulation and self-control, all important for the development of a gritty growth mindset. Experts believe that only about 25% of school performance is accounted for by intelligence; the other 75% results from their non-cognitive skills. While these skills don’t correlate with intelligence, they are more predictive of general life success than either intellect or talent. They need to be developed by schools because the stronger our kids’ non-cognitive skills, the more successful they will be socially, physically, and emotionally.

The goal of self-regulation is to develop the adolescent’s ability to delay gratification. In Walter Mischel’s famous psychological study, he tested the ability of four year olds to delay gratification.The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room for a few minutes. The child was told he could eat the marshmallow on the table whenever he wanted to, but if he waited until the researcher returned, he would get to eat two marshmallows. About a third of the children [the delayers] were able to wait until the researcher returned, but most [the non-delayers] couldn’t hold out. The delayers and non-delayers were followed over the next fifty years, and two things were clear. The delayers remained delayers as they aged AND the delayers were more successful than the non-delayers. The delayers scored higher on SAT tests and completed more school. They had higher self-esteem and were better able to deal with stress. The non-delayers as adults were more likely to be overweight and suffer from addictions. As Steinberg notes, “The inability or unwillingness to delay gratification—to decline an immediate reward in order to wait for a larger one—is a huge, lifelong liability.”

The good news is that in the right environments, children can learn to be delayers.  Lack of self-control is as much a cultural problem as a neurological one. At age ten, for example, there were few differences between Asian and American kids in terms of self-control, but the gap widened year by year. At age 14 the gap was 20%. At age 18 it was 45%; during their twenties the gap rose to 50%. This gap in self-control helps explain the academic achievement gap we know we face with Asia. The cultural problem ties back to our families and schools, specifically to our focus on adolescent happiness and self-esteem. In a study a decade ago, 6% of Korean eighth-graders surveyed expressed confidence in their math skills, compared with 39% of U.S. eighth-graders. And how did they do on the PISA test 15 year olds from around the world take every three years?  The Korean kids ranked 3rd and the U.S. kids ranked 35th in the world in math. So much for self-esteem. It doesn’t transfer into accomplishment. And if it doesn’t transfer into accomplishment, if kids don’t earn their self-esteem, it’s not only worthless but detrimental. 

PISA also measures student engagement. The “2015 Brown Center Report: How Well Are American Students Learning?” defines engagement as “the intensity with which students apply themselves to learning in school.” Who do you think reports being more engaged in school, Asian or American students? American kids report being significantly more engaged in their math classes than their Asian counterparts, and yet on the most recent PISA tests, Asian kids swept the top seven spots while American kids finished 40th. Though it’s counter-intuitive, generally the higher the engagement score of a country’s students, the lower the country’s math achievement. It’s important to note, however, that while engagement and achievement are negatively correlated when looking at a country’s scores, they are positively correlated when looking at the scores of individual kids within a country.  In other words, the greater the engagement of American and Asian 15 year olds in math, the higher those individual students actually scored. The troubling thing, however, is that the least engaged Asian kids still score higher than the most engaged American kids. American teens do fare well in two categories. They are top ten in self-esteem and suicide rates. So much for all the stories we read about Asian academic pressure cookers ruining childhoods; the teen suicide rate in America is 30% to 40% higher than the rates in Korea, Japan, and China.

If we want to make adolescence an age of opportunity for American kids, not only do we need to parent to develop self-regulation, we also need to focus on HOW kids spend their time. When do you think most adolescents first experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex? It’s not Friday or Saturday nights. It’s weekday afternoons. We need to limit the unstructured, unsupervised time kids spend with other kids, in person and especially online. It’s a recipe for disaster. Plagued by a deficit of self-regulation and self-control, how can we protect them and keep them from hurting themselves or others when they are driven by hardwired peer pressure to do exciting and often dangerous things? One way to do this is to limit their free time.

In Annette Lareau’s highly acclaimed and well researched book, Unequal Childhoods, she compared the outcomes for kids raised with long periods of unstructured time to kids whose time was tightly scheduled. While her research suggested that kids enjoyed a less structured, freer childhood, with few demands and lots of time to do what they wanted, what it showed more clearly was that kids with more structured childhoods did far better in life.

Kids need to be busy after school and to work harder during school. School needs to demand more time and effort from adolescents. It needs to focus more on responsibility and less on enjoyment, more on accomplishment and less on socialization, more on the serious and less on the frivolous. Don’t get me wrong. I want kids to like school. I want kids to like my class. I want kids to be happy. But that’s not what I want most for them, and what is going on today in America’s schools is not good for America’s students….or America. Rudolf Dreikurs sounded very Montessori when he wrote, “Never do for a child what the child can do for himself.” I agree with that wholeheartedly, but I’m not sure that kids today can put up their phones, self-regulate, delay gratification, and take responsibility by themselves. But if we as the adults in their lives can be warm, firm, and supportive, provide clear expectations and comforting structure that focuses on accountability and accomplishment, hopefully they will have a chance.