Sticker charts and handing out candy worked 10 years ago. When your kids get older, reinforcing good behavior requires rethinking your approach. 

By Allison Slater Tate
Illustration by Clare Mallison

Who would have guessed that potty training a 3-year-old would be great preparation for parenting a teenager? At least for me, it turned out to be true. Back then, positive reinforcement—the technical name for giving rewards that increase a desired behavior—eventually worked. But now that stubborn little boy is 16 and 6 feet, 2 inches tall. (In other words, he literally looks down on me.) How do I convince him and his brothers to, like, keep their rooms reasonably clean or, better yet, pretend that I’m not a general blight on their existence?

Try the Big Three

Positive reinforcement can work with teenagers because it works on humans in general, says child psychologist Sarah Cain Spannagel, PhD, a clinical instructor in pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University. “We’re all looking for it,” she says. The tricky part with teens is finding what’s most valuable to them. For many, that might be a concrete reward like money (see “Show them the money?” page 98 ), but Cain Spannagel maintains that parents of teenagers have more powerful, not to mention cheaper, tools at their disposal.

“I call them ‘the big three’: touch, talk and look,” she says. This MO harkens back to when your kids were babies, when as a matter of course, you often spent time holding them, talking to them and looking at them. “Those big three are still highly effective tools,” Cain Spannagel explains. “Your children continue to crave your attention even as teenagers.”

Frankly, this confused me, because many days my own teenagers act as if they would like me to forget we are related at all. They make it clear that the last thing they want is for me to talk to them or look at them…let alone touch them. But Cain Spannagel reiterated that for teens, even those like mine, the goal is simply to be physically and emotionally present for them, in whatever way they will let you—and being there will help reinforce the behaviors you want.

Use Those Heart Emojis

I turned to Deborah Gilboa, MD, a family physician and author of Get the Behavior You Want...Without Being the Parent You Hate! for some concrete ideas using this kind of teen-centric positive reinforcement, in hopes of making the whole experience of parenting teenagers more pleasant for everyone involved. 

As a mom of four, Gilboa is all too familiar with how much teens love their phones. And if you can’t beat technology, she advises, join it: Use those devices to show some love yourself. “Send your teen a text pointing out something you admire about them, with no other ask or reminder connected to the message, and even better, tell them they don’t have to reply,” she suggested. In other words, just mention something they did or said that you appreciated, no strings attached. All praise builds connection and confidence, Gilboa explained, and what you notice doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be as simple as a moment when a teen could have been grumpy but refrained from being rude. 

The only catch is that whatever you offer needs to be honest praise, not made up, Gilboa says. Teenagers know the difference and will legit call you out for any cheese. Their confidence bucket is usually not full, no matter how much bravado they put out into the world, she says. So it’s important to praise even small acts or behavior they have control over, stuff they can re-create down the line. If your teen is struggling with a certain behavior—maybe getting to class on time, tackling homework, taking out the trash without being nagged—but occasionally does get it right, ask them to pay attention and report to you why they think they were able to succeed on those days. 

Abstract reasoning starts to come into focus in the teen years, Gilboa explains. “You can take advantage of that. This is a chance to teach kids to analyze what went right and how they can replicate that in the future.”

In other words, focus on the times they hit the mark instead of the times they miss. “Say, ‘Sometimes you are showing up to class on time. What are you saying to yourself in your head? How are you navigating the hallways differently when you do get there on time?’ ” 

Gilboa also suggests turning the usual narrative—parents calling out their kids’ tech dependence and overuse—on its head. Instead of taking a critical view of how they spend their time online, ask your teen to teach you about something they enjoy online. “It could be Snapchat, Fortnite or watching a few of their favorite memes or YouTube videos,” she says. The key here is to acknowledge something your teen values or likes without attaching the disdain or frustration parents often show toward apps, games and social media. “Kids think that we love them except for all that tech, and that we would love them more if they didn’t like their tech,” Gilboa says. “By asking them to teach you about something they enjoy, you’re telling them, ‘I value that you have passions, and I don’t have to share the passion to value it.’ ”

Include Their Friends

Respecting your kids’ relationships is another way to show them some love and reinforce niceness. When planning family outings, like grabbing dinner or a movie, invite your teens’ friends along, Gilboa advises. No surprise: Teens spend a lot of their emotional energy on their social lives, and recognizing this reality is another way of  letting your kids know you like them the way they are. “They need to spend time with family, but when you can, ask if they’d like to invite a friend—just because you know they really like their friends,” she says.

At the end of the day, parenting teens seems to be most pleasant for all parties when we keep in mind that relationships take two people to work. Most of the time, what my kids want from me is to be their personal silent Uber driver and keep the kitchen pantry full of easily consumable carbs. I get it. But if  I’m willing to get creative, there are ways for me to reach out, to acknowledge and encourage them—to keep the good vibes flowing. And if this is indeed a two-way street, who knows? My kids might occasionally throw a little positivity my way. Or even clean their rooms.

Show Them the Money? 

Ponying up $10s and $20s probably won’t motivate your teens in the long run. Research indicates that if you pay your kids for good grades or behavior, it reduces intrinsic motivation, says New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber. That is, the impulse to do good isn’t linked to the nice feeling they get from it.