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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Are You Playing Favorites?

Posted on December 5th, 2011, 0 Comments

The countdown of days left for holiday shopping has begun. I, however, have typically paid more attention to another kind of count at this time of year. Not wanting to buy a lopsided number of presents, I’ve focused on the gifts per child count. And surely, some of my concern about present parity had to do with a worry about appearing to play favorites.

Jeffery Kluger, author of the new book Sibling Effect, claims that 99% of parents have favorites and that the other 1% is lying. But I have a hunch that in a good number of these cases something else might be going on.

Do you worry about playing favorites? How about your parents – did they have a favorite child?

How we were parented matters because we bring our growing-up experiences with us when we raise our own kids. If we think our parents got something wrong, we’re determined for it to be different for our kids.

My mother ran our household, and she ran a tight ship. As different as my siblings and I were, my mom believed “fair” meant treating all of us the same – the same rules, expectations, punishments, and rewards.

As you’ve undoubtedly guessed, I was determined to do it differently. I strived to take my kids’ individuality into account and to give each of them what they needed.

Both my children were equal parts bright, curious, and independent. Both had potential to be difficult. But their needs were definitely different. And although I can honestly say that I did not have a favorite, truth be told, one of my children was much easier for me to parent than the other.

My daughter’s ability and curiosity were expressed through academics, dance, and art – even at a very young age. And she seemed to have been born with more than her fair share of delayed gratification and self-regulation. Thus, before she was four, she’d convinced me that the best thing I could do for her was to stay connected to her while staying out of her way as much as possible. Although doing both those things simultaneously could have been hard to do, it wasn’t difficult for me because I had a good model for doing it: I could pretty much raise her the way I wished that I’d been raised.

My son, on the other hand, was impulsive and loved the adrenaline rush that comes from trying new things and taking risks. I used to joke that he must have been hiding when delayed gratification was handed out. Although it took me a bit longer to figure out his needs, by the time he was seven he’d convinced me that the best thing I could do for him was to stay connected to him while staying in his way as much as possible. I didn’t have a good model for doing this, and my son proved to be much more challenging for me to raise than my daughter.

In fact, in almost every family there is one child who is more challenging to raise than the rest – especially during the teen years. When this happens, it is not about favoritism. And it’s usually not about the parent or the teen. It’s about the goodness of fit: how well a particular parenting style meets the needs of a particular teen.

The next posting will explore what parents of teens need to know about goodness of fit.

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