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The Protective Power of Anticipation

And how to help your teenager make good choices in the heat of the moment...

Hot and cold cognition in teenagers

Today's topic is spurred by an encounter with an acquaintance who shared her surprise and dismay at her teenage son blowing his hard-earned money on a shopping spree with his friends. "He swore he was just going along to keep them company," she lamented. "He promised not to spend a

nything, he was set on saving every penny for the new computer he wants!" As she relayed her story, I recognized exactly what was going on.

Why do teenagers promise one thing, then do something entirely different?

The answer lies in the difference between “hot” and “cold” cognition. Psychologists have discovered that when making decisions, teenagers are quite literally of two different minds. There's the "assessing decisions in the cold light of day" mind, and there's the "I'm with my friends and we're having fun" mind.

The mindset in charge depends on where teenagers are and what's happening around them. In “hot cognition” environments, decision making happens quickly, has more emotions tied to it, and is heavily influenced by peer pressure or other social factors. “Cold cognition” environments allow adolescents time to reflect and weigh their options, resulting in sound and prudent reasoning.

The above mentioned teenager, let's call him Nick, was likely fully committed to his plan of saving up for a computer. When Nick promised not to spend anything, he wasn't lying. But, once out, enticed by the newest shoes and coolest shades, and prodded along by his friends, all logical reasoning fell away.

How can you use knowledge about hot and cold cognition to your advantage? Here's the protective power piece:

Adults can help adolescents to make positive decisions by encouraging them to think through situations in cold cognition environments and practice what to do in the heat of the moment.

In other words, ANTICIPATE possible scenarios and help your teenager think through how they will handle themselves. This is akin to fire or earthquake drills, where we practice desired behavior to remove any doubt as to our course of action when the real emergency occurs.

How might this have played out between Nick and his mother? Before he left, she could have asked: "It's great that you're set on saving up for your computer. How will you handle the temptation to buy something? What if your friends buy items you covet... what will stop you from doing the same? How will you stick to your plan?" Talking through it in advance could have helped Nick stay resolute when hot, impulse-boosting conditions kick in.

Here's another example.

It's Saturday afternoon, in the comfort of your home, and your daughter describes her plans for the night. She is going to a party and truthfully says she has no intention of drinking or doing anything else that might be dangerous. But, when she gets to the party and discovers all her friends are drinking, there's a good chance hot cognition will take over and she'll join in.

Knowing that teens can spontaneously shift from cold to hot reasoning, capitalize on your relaxed Saturday afternoon conversation, in the comfort of your home, to help her think in advance of the decisions she'll need to make when she's in the heat of the moment. Try saying, "So glad to hear it! Now, what will you do if you get there and all your friends are drinking? How will you stick to your plan?"

If she's not sure, brainstorm options together. There are a range of strategies you can come up. For example, she can blame her teetotaling on an early sports game, a prescription drug that doesn't mix with alcohol, extremely strict parents, or she can volunteer herself as the designated driver. Whatever she decides on, the idea is to establish the plan before heading into the hot cognition environment of the party.

It may not always work, nor can we anticipate every risk that our teenagers will face, but having a workable plan that has been established in advance of hot cognition situations is a form of protection we, as parents, can easily give.

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