The Teen Brain: Beautiful But Still Under Construction

Posted on October 24th, 2011, 0 Comments

Teens are biologically set to seek out thrills and take risks. From an evolutionary viewpoint, these changes evolved to spur this age group to leave a safe home, to increase their range of experiences and learn new skills, and to become independent.

So the changes that take place in adolescence are adaptive and serve a positive purpose. Yet, the teen brain still has a long way to go to reach adulthood, and the thrill seeking and risk-taking teens do along the way can make parenting them a tricky business.

Even though our children grow bigger and smarter and stronger during their teen years, the chances of them getting hurt or running into trouble go way up. Most of the time the cause is a bad decision. A teen sneaks out in the middle of the night and gets a citation for breaking curfew. Another tries smoking pot, likes it, and ends up getting hooked. Another hooks-up with someone met at a party and winds up with a sexually transmitted disease. And yet another sends a revealing photo online, and in a matter of minutes it’s shared with countless others.

For decades we’ve believed that teens make these deliberate but reckless choices because they weigh the risks as low, assess their smarts and skills as high, and conclude, “I’ll be fine. Nothing bad is going to happen to me.” Based on this explanation, parents have mostly tried to curb teen risk-taking by emphasizing the risks and then counting on their teens to logically think things through. I know I did.

Each time my teenage son went out the door, I reminded him of the dangers at the top of my mind and encouraged him to stay safe… to think before acting…. to make good decisions. And his response invariably went something like this: Don’t worry, Mom. I always weigh the pros and cons when I’m thinking about doing something you’d call dangerous. Back then I took comfort in knowing that he was thinking things through; I now know that my comfort was misplaced.

New evidence from 300 studies on teenage risk-taking strongly challenges the notion that teens think they are invulnerable. National surveys show that teens typically overestimate the chance that something bad will happen. The trouble is that they’re just not much bothered by it. New brain research sheds some light on why.

Brain changes tracked by neuroscientists suggest that teens’ reward systems (unlike those of younger children or adults) seem to bias their choices and decisions towards the thrill even if there is some risk. In fact, getting teens to deliberately weigh the costs and benefits of risk-taking (as my son assured me that he did) may actually encourage a riskier form of reasoning. The benefits of fitting in with their peers and the lure of excitement and rebellion right now will almost always outweigh the cost of consequences later.

So what does this mean for us parents?

Crucial Don’ts
Don’t think teens believe they are invulnerable. They don’t. Research clearly shows that teens are well aware of the risks in their world.

Don’t think that if you emphasize the risks, you can count on your teen to logically think things through and consistently reach the same conclusion you would. They won’t. The strategy of pointing out the risks isn’t very effective when teens already overestimate that something bad will happen if they take risks but still choose risk-taking when they logically deliberate.

Crucial Dos
Do monitor and supervise your teen. In today’s teen culture, there are so many temptations and so many ways for our kids to go wrong. They need our sturdy presence. Although we can’t be with them at every moment, and at the end of the day our teens must make their own decisions, we can make it more difficult for them to make bad decisions, and we can help fill their time with positive activities.

Do help your teen see benefits of good choices differently. Bad consequences are in the too distant future or are too poorly understood (or both) to be strong deterrents for teens. Instead, teens make decisions based on the benefits they expect – especially short-term benefits. So to make risk-taking less appealing for your teen, highlight the benefits of making wiser, safer choices.

Do be collaborative, aiming to guide your teen rather than trying to control them. Our parental control systems become less effective as our kids get older. So rather than viewing control as something we do to our teens (or giving up on them because we can’t control them), we need to find ways to influence our teens and work with them. The next post will look at some specific ways for doing just that.

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