As a parent of a teen, you no doubt know about the risk of teen brain impulsivity. But does your teen really “get it?” Have your teens read this article so they do “get” how their brains are uniquely wired and hopefully follow suggestions that could save their lives
Before I get to the topic you’ve heard before, about the risky impulsivity of teen brains, let’s start with your teen brain’s superpowers. The supercharger is a brain chemical, dopamine. When you feel that burst of pleasure, deep satisfaction, or rush of excitement triggered by something you do, think, or experience, you’re feeling a wave of dopamine surging through your brain.
Your brain’s dopamine reward-pleasure responses remain highest during your teen years. Your increased number of dopamine receptors, and their increased response the dopamine that is released, stimulates your teen brain like a supercharged racecar. This unique teen superpower is yours to tap into to drive your new explorations, to try new things, and to push envelopes discovering new interests and friends.
Now is when you have the boosted dopamine pleasure expectations to give you the push to take chances – to do to do things exciting, creative, daring and challenging – but potentially less enticing to try later once your brain wires into mature, adult control systems. You can use your dopamine drive to ask someone out on a date, stretch your limits and take a challenging class, try out new styles of clothes and hair, take up a new sport or act in a play. Do something you’ve never tried before.
As a teenager today you are faced with more decisions and choices then ever before. More choices may sound like a good thing, but the number of decisions you are required to make each day can overwhelm your teen brain at its current stage of development.
Your teen brain is programmed to be impulsive and to explore. That’s a good thing when it empowers you to try new foods, clubs, and extend your friendship groups. But you are also more likely to die during your teen years than at any other future time, until you are elderly. Teen death rate from preventable causes is three times that of any other time during your life.
During these years, as your body reaches peaks of surging hormones, strength, coordination, and endurance, you are in a collision zone, not because you are bad or thoughtless, but because your brain’s power has not yet developed to resist the pull of instant gratification or heed warnings about risky behaviors.
You know there are times you should hold back on your teen brain’s impulsivity and make more considered choices before taking potentially risky actions. But, there’s a problem. As you are growing into an adult body and have access to the same risky temptations – alcohol, drugs, driving while texting, – your surging dopamine makes these things particularly attractive. At the same time, your teen brain has not yet wired the control centers for the judgment and high-risk avoidance to judge consequences before acting. These elements remain under construction until your mid twenties.
Even though you have the information and reasoning capabilities to understand the potential for harm associated with risky actions, you don’t yet have the strongly wired control system for communication between your brain circuits of knowledge and those programmed to go for the dopamine-pleasure.
These moderating functions nevertheless are exactly what you need to resist the pull of potential pleasure your brain anticipates arising from risky actions. You can’t wait the five to ten years for you brain’s natural development of fully wired executive function control systems. Critical choices confront you now, everyday. The good news, though, that by increasing your awareness of possible impulsive decisions, you can develop strategies to build resistance to impulsive decisions. You can have more control of your choices as you evaluate alternatives and make your best decisions now.
Answer these questions aloud one right after the other without reading ahead.
Was your first response to the question, “What does a cow drink?” “milk” even through you know that cows drink water? (I know, calves drink milk, but the question did say “cows”). Your response of “milk” is an example of your still impulsive teen brain’s programming to stop jump to the first response instead of waiting to consider other options.
Now try this to see if knowing about impulsive first responses is enough to put you in control of your choices.
1. Spell the word with four letters, starting with a J and rhyming with “smoke” means a funny story.
2. Now, spell the four-letter word, starting with a P that that means to push on someone or thing with one finger (it also rhymes with “smoke”).
3. I bet you spelled “joke” and “poke” – good job.
4. And what is the name for the white of an egg?
Did you first think “yolk” even though you know the yolk is the yellow part and the white is called the white or the albumin? "Yoke" is often the response given by teens. It is also the first response that comes to mind for adults, but their brains have gone through the additional wiring that gives it stronger impulse control. That is why some adults think "yoke" first, but don't say it. They wait a moment and see if they are missing something beyond that first response. That is when it comes to them that the yoke is the yellow part and the white is just called "the white" or "albumin."
Now that you’ve experienced your brain jumping to conclusions, help build your power to resist first responses by reflecting about times you have already paid the price of your brain’s impulsive wiring.
Use the list below to explore consequences of impulsive decisions often regretted by teens. You’ll build your control networks by thinking of similar times you wish you’d taken more time to think before acting.
By using strategies you choose from the list below, you’ll experience situations to strengthen the brain networks needed to override your brain’s impulsive drives when you choose to.
Before your teen brain transitions into an adult brain, which sadly will be more resistant to trying new things and exploring new pathways, tap into the great potential of your teen brain’s imagination and vitality.
Now that you have strategies to consider the potential consequences of your choices and actions, jump into the driver’s seat of your supercharged brain. Seek out and explore new experiences and opportunities dawning before you during these unique years of your life.