Your kid looks you in the eyes and insists he won’t drink at the party because he has to get up early for his SAT prep class. And yet once he gets there and all his friends are indulging after a long week, his good intentions go out the window along with the smoke in the room. The following day, he can barely roll out of bed.
Teens have two different thinking systems — “cold reasoning” and “hot reasoning”
“Teenagers have two different thinking systems—cold and hot reasoning—and the one they use depends on the context they’re in,” says Dr. Lisa Damour, bestselling author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, whose latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents, is available for preorder now.
“When using cold reasoning, kids can be as clear, wise, and analytical as an adult,” says Dr. Damour, co-host of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting. If they say they’re not going to drink at the party, they’re not lying; they truly mean what they say and have their best interests at heart.
“But hot reasoning kicks in when they get into situations like a party that’s socially and emotionally charged,” Dr. Damour says. Even though they arrive with no intention of drinking, if they’re offered a drink, they may think, “It’s weird to say no. We’re having fun. What’s the harm in one?” The harm is that once they’ve had one drink, their judgment is worse than it was before. “They may then think, ‘What’s the harm in two? Or three?’ That’s when things can quickly go down the wrong road,” says Dr. Damour.
It’s frustrating to feel like we can’t trust our kids, but most of all, we don’t want them to put themselves in danger — by driving drunk or having a sexual encounter that wouldn’t have happened if they were sober. Anticipating these situations is the best way to help keep them safe.
7 ways to anticipate situations that may affect your teen’s reasoning
1. Strategize in advance
Maybe when your kid gets to the party, the classmate, she has a crush on will be drinking and ask her to join. “You want her to arrive with a strategy for how she’s going to stick to his original plan even in the face of powerful temptations,” says Dr. Damour. “The key is to have these conversations without judgment — to recognize that almost any teenager would be tempted to drink in a situation like that.”
2. Brainstorm acceptable excuses
You could suggest that she drive to the party to use that as an excuse not to drink. Or she could explain that he’s in sports season or taking medication that can’t mix with alcohol or that you’ll smell it on her as soon as she walks in the door. “It doesn’t have to be true,” says Dr. Damour. “It just has to be planned.”
3. You can send two seemingly contradictory messages at the same time
Parents often think it’s hypocritical to tell their kids not to drink — but to call if they get into a dicey situation around alcohol or anything else. “You can say those two things to your kid. Good kids sometimes make dumb choices. Nothing matters more than their safety,” says Dr. Damour.
4. Know the most important thing to tell your kid
Say, “We will never make you sorry that you asked for our help.” You can do your best to prevent a hot-reasoning decision, but once it’s been made, you still want your kid to feel like they can reach out to you for help, says Dr. Damour.
5. Make it a learning opportunity without shaming them
You can tell your kid, “I’ll come to get you from anywhere, but we don’t have to talk about it that night.” But that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche. Later, you’ll need to figure out what happened and what they would do differently next time and consider having them tone down their social lives for a few weekends while reflecting on the situation.
6. Remember this is totally normal
“Teenagers are more prone to hot reasoning than individuals at any other time of life,” says Dr. Damour. However, some teenagers are more vulnerable than others. A kid with ADHD or who is generally impulsive will be likelier to act without thinking it through. Anxious kids may also make a split-second decision they wouldn’t otherwise make. Says Dr. Damour, “Anxiety, when it becomes very intense, can undermine reasoning and cause kids to make unsound choices.”
7. Safety is priority number one
No matter what happens, you never want your kid to think, “What’s more dangerous —staying in this bad situation or calling my folks?” and conclude that admitting their mistake to you is the more dangerous option.
More Great Reading:
Helping Teens Manage Stress and Anxiety: Dr. Lisa Damour
6 Ways to Get Teen Boys to Open Up and Engage In Deeper Conversation