On Vitality

The neuroscience of creating vitality

Parenting and the Amazing Teen Brain, Part 2

Why do teen brains engage in risky behavior?

Risky teen behavior - NOT scared of heights
(Part 1 in this series can be found here.) Teens are wired to seek novelty and take risks because this is precisely what is required of them at this stage of development. The other huge driver at this age is to find a mate.  Put all of these together, and BOOM.

Let’s look at teens’ notorious risk taking tendencies a little closer, since saying that teens are risk-takers is only telling part of the story. When faced with an activity that has known risks, teens actually make the right decision about as often as adults.

Where the teen brain differs from the adult brain is in assessing the risk of an unfamiliar activity, which is a beautiful example of ‘knowledge is power’. Teens evaluate risk/reward differently during these years: they undervalue risk while at the same time they overvalue reward.  Teens need to separate from their family of origin and eventually find a partner to create their own family, so when your teen acts like their life depends on what happens with a boyfriend or girlfriend, it actually does to the teen brain!

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Much like changing from automatic to stick shift (do not use this metaphor with your kids), there is lots of frustration and missed turns when dealing with such overwhelming brain changes. In the arc of brain development, we go from hypersensitive design in teenage years to optimized design as adult. To the teen brain, things are louder, more intense, more volatile. Everything happens faster with a teen.  Hormones levels are soaring and neurotransmitters fluctuate wildly. Put all of this together, and we have a teen brain that is wired for new kinds of input, but without the experience and knowledge of how to analyze the input.  

Novelty-seeking urges peak at age 15, which just happens to be at a time when they are not quite ready to assess the risks of novel experiences. However, when teens are properly introduced to the (unexaggerated!) risks associated with an unhealthy activity, they are far less likely to engage in it. The problem happens when teens are faced with a new activity presented to them in real-time in an unfamiliar way. 

Often teens seek highs to counteract their moodiness, which is typical during these years.  Society has taken advantage of this natural inclination and decided that this, of all times, is when kids should learn to drive.  When teens gain this skill, you will often see an improvement in their behavior, as they don’t have to struggle with parents as often to assert their independence.

How important are parents during teen years? Much of the heavy lifting has been done. Teen years can feel an awful lot like baking. You have all the ingredients in the cake, and now it’s in the oven. You have to wait an hour to see how it turns out and at this stage there is nothing you can do by intervening but mess it up. Telling your kids, things like “don’t smoke” can often backfire at this stage. Rebellion is the name of the game.

Why was “Just Say No” so largely ineffective? Because the advice was far too broad. Intuitively, kids know that a beer or a joint is not the same as heroin, and it is our role as parents to make sure our teens get specific advice about specific things we want them to avoid, along with an exploration of why—from multiple angles and every imaginable facet. Saying ‘because I said so’ may feel good in the moment, but it rarely—if ever—works with teens.

Teen pregnancy test - risky behavior can change a teen forever
While you may find talking about drugs and alcohol to be challenging, don’t forget to cover the risks of sexually transmitted diseases—no matter how uncomfortable you may find the topic to be. Did you know that in the United States alone, over 14 million people get a new HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) infection every year?  About half (49%) of these new infections are in the 15 to 24 age group. Do you want your teen to be one of the 7 million infected with HPV this year? Your teen needs to know that there are risks involved with any sexual activity (HPV is certainly not the only one out there), though there are ways to effectively reduce (but not eliminate) the risks of infection and/or pregnancy. Your teen needs the complete picture. Sometimes, knowledge and wisdom is the best protection of all.

Lastly, you should consider the ‘chunking size’ of your communication.  As adults, we’ve had our brains honed by years of lengthy lectures in college, often followed by decades of lengthy work meetings. Such experience trains our brains to traffic in very large chunks of information.  Your teen, however, is still in a stage where information should be presented in much smaller chunks. If your goal is to facilitate maximum absorption and understanding, your advice to teens should be in SMS and Twitter-sized chunks. In fact, some parents have success by communicating essential advice via SMS! A benefit of this approach is that it forces you to think before you speak, which is great advice for everybody and all situations.

Eva Ritvo, M.D. is vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Miami and co-author of The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful.

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