What Are The Mathematics of Parenting?

You’re likely handling conflict with your teen well, but those fights must be offset by positive moments. Learn the science how.

Last week’s article outlined why teens are nuts.  Biological processes are at play making them into sports cars without brakes.  They’re chemically addicted to friends and, although rational, have to wait 15 years for their cognitive control processes to catch up.  I can hear your groans all the way over here, “I have to wait for normalcy?”  Kind of, but not quite.  Without underestimating the power of realistic expectations, there’s two things you can do to dramatically improve your parenting with teens: math and compromise.

Before kids hit teenage-hood, they have a lot of incentives to not confrontationally tick us off.  Their survival depends on parental good graces and something about not being able to cross the street wrecks a person’s social life.  We’re all they have.  As they get older and explore their agency, the tables turn.  Teens stop letting it slide how little positive time we spend with them and resentment builds. 

Here’s where math comes in.  Tally up what you’re doing, specifically, with the time you spend with your teen.  Most tallies look like this:  20 minutes of haranguing to get out of bed, 30 minutes of spending more time with the younger (needier) kids, 10 minutes of telling your teen you “might” have time to help them with homework… but forget, and 30 minutes of cumulative complaining about poor teen habits.  That’s an hour and a half of pain.  The tragedy is you’re probably justified and handle each conflict reasonably well.  The problem isn’t the negative encounters per-say.  Rather, they need to be offset by positive moments otherwise, in behavioral psychology terms, you become reduced to an “aversive stimuli”.

How much positive “offsetting” are we talking about?  Dr. John Gottman, mathematician and psychologist, demonstrates in marriage and parenting you need a minimum ratio of five positive encounters to every one negative to avoid being blacklisted as aversive.  Not only do relationships need more positive moments to definitionally be considered positive but we’re actually biologically hardwired to put more significance into negativity.  It’s called the Negativity Bias.  The same “units” of negativity are simply way more potent than positive “units.”  That’s why trying to offset complaints with what you did right never works – the exchange rate doesn’t nearly compare.

Next week we’ll talk about compromise.

Yonasan Bender, SW graduated from Hebrew University’s School of Social Work. He has his psychotherapy practice at The Place: The Jerusalem Centre for Emotional Wellbeing. To share your thoughts, experiences, questions, or a different perspective, you can reach Yonasan Bender at 053-808-0435 or email him by clicking HERE. To learn more about him and his work, click HERE.

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