How to Help Build Your Teen’s Willpower Muscle

Posted on September 3rd, 2012, 0 Comments

The latest research by Roy Baumeister and others has likened self-discipline (also know as willpower) to a mental muscle. You can read more about Baumeister’s work here. Laboratory and field studies indicate that, like a muscle, self-discipline can be strengthened by practice and use. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the brain has a limited capacity for self-discipline. Thus, also like a muscle, willpower can become fatigued with overuse.

Now, with this fatigable muscle in mind, imagine your teen going through their typical school day. Think of the number of times they flexed and stretched their willpower muscle as they worked to stay focused on a boring lecture, kept from blurting out an answer to an easy question, labored through a difficult test, or swallowed a smart-aleck remark to a teacher or coach. Suffice it to say, that by the end of the day your teen has performed a variety of acts of self-control, all of them draining the same mental reserve.

By the time teens return home from school their willpower muscles are often worn out from overuse. And with their restraints weakened, it’s little wonder that they engage us in homework debates, fail to focus on their assignments, or have trouble switching off the television.

So what’s a parent to do?

Offer your teen an afterschool snack. We’ve known for a long time that glucose fuels many brain functions. But only recently researchers have discovered that restoring glucose levels can restock self-discipline. So something as simple as having a bite to eat can help boost your teen’s willpower. Proteins or slow-burning carbs (including fruits, vegetables, yogurt, as well as whole grain breads and crackers) are thought to elevate willpower for longer periods. But in a pinch, according to research lab tests, a sugar sweetened drink such as lemonade can revive willpower too.

Collaborate with you teen to establish a homework routine. Without a regular time and place designated for homework, teens have to make up their mind on a daily basis about when and where to study. And research has shown that making decisions and choices seems to draw on the same pool of resources as exercising willpower. So by collaborating with your teen to establish a regular homework routine, you’re helping them spend their limited willpower reserve wisely. Plus, it will cut-down on the everyday debating. Definitely an additional bonus!

Encourage your teen to come up with a homework to-do list. Working on multiple things at the same time or even constantly trying to figure out what to do next can quickly deplete your teen’s willpower. But by creating a to-do list before starting on the night’s homework, teens can reduce the strain on their willpower muscle. Some teens (usually the ones with the strongest willpower muscles) will begin with the hardest or least interesting tasks first. Others will organize their lists the other way around. Regardless, they’ll increase their odds of success by concentrating on one thing at a time as they move down the list. And they’ll feel a sense of accomplishment as they cross off the completed tasks.

Entice your teen to train their willpower. Researchers have found that willpower can be trained and become strong with use. In psychological studies, a couple weeks of performing simple, daily acts of self-control – things like changing the hand you use when opening a door or using a computer mouse or simply standing up straight whenever you remember– can increase willpower capacity in completely unrelated activities.

By following through on just a couple of the suggestions listed above, you can help your teen strengthen and conserve their willpower muscle. That’s important because the strength of your teen’s self-discipline is highly predictive of their success in school and beyond. It’s even more important than smarts.

The next posting will cover a topic related to willpower: procrastination. We’ll take a look at why teens procrastinate and what you can do to help them overcome it.

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