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Born To Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help

By Dr. Jess Shatkin, reviewed by Dr. Lloyd Sederer

Source: Tarcher

What happened to that wonderful, even angelic child we knew before he or she turned teen? Did we do something wrong? Our child, relative, or student seemingly has lost good judgment, is drawn like a magnet to risk and trouble, places friends (good or not) above family, picks fights, and has to be told the same thing endless times with little effect other than to inspire our ire?

No, it is not us (with some exceptions). It is them—but not because they are bad, or mean to drive us mad. What they are doing, despite risk and admonition, is developmentally and psychologically age appropriate, even if hard to bear. Dr. Jess Shatkin, a nationally recognized child and adolescent psychiatrist, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, a popular SiriusXM radio host, and the father of two teenagers is our guide to understanding and success—or not—with teens.

Consider the risks: Binge drinking and substance abuse; unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy; texting when driving and sexting when not; and breaking the rules and breaking the law. Yet, as Dr. Shatkin so elegantly and clearly writes as a doctor and fine story-teller, adolescent brains are engineered to take risks. It is built into their DNA and development, it's nature's way (if dated) of producing the exploratory behaviors that are meant to advance the survival of the species.

But boy, that's a hard one to swallow when you want to wring your child's neck. But we will be lost if we expect them to succeed on their own. Besides, how can we adults wait, hold our breaths—for as many as ten years—until their unmyelinated brains mature and can operate, hopefully, as adults?

It really helps to understand what is going on in their heads. First, understanding can quiet adult agitation, and second, it can foster strategies to help keep teens safe (and grownups sane). And Dr. Shatkin is a great teacher. From him, we learn about neuroscience, evolution, family dynamics, human and brain development, and the power of peer relations. As has been said, understanding is an essential element in being able to have empathy, patience, and even forgiveness.

But being an "understanding" parent, teacher, or relative is not enough. We need to avoid what does not work with teens and practice what does. We need to know how to navigate the minefield of adolescence.

Adolescents, we learn, actually think about and appreciate risk. They are not as "invincible" in their own minds as we might imagine. In fact, as Dr. Shatkin illustrates, they tend to overestimate risk. But when it comes to their developing brains, their surging hormones and peer networks often prevail. Yet teens can learn to develop protective skills to contain impulses and not bend to social pressures.

Through Dr. Shatkin’s smart and engaging writing we also learn how we make decisions, as both youth and the not so young. He remarks, channeling countless parents, “What in the world were you thinking?” We are all prone to bias in our decisions, maybe having the facts but losing the meaning. However, we can learn—as can our youth. But not by trying to ‘police’ adolescents or exhort them with tales of any variety of negative consequences.

What is invaluable about this book is the material on what parents can do to reduce risk-taking. Dr. Shatkin shows us how effective praise can be; it is the necessary alternative to scolding and punishment. Families need to set reasonable rules and boundaries and stick to them when challenged, as they surely will be. And perhaps most importantly, families (other relatives and teachers too) need to 'be there' for adolescents, for them to have adults consistently in their lives, at dinner, on the weekend, and in the course of everyday life. Quantity counts, not just quality. Former President Obama had dinner at 6:30 with his wife and kids every day (when possible). That’s what commitment looks like, and it works.

Schools and teachers too can contribute to reducing adolescent risk. Youth need skills to be able to say no to their peers and to the many temptations they will encounter—from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and risky sexual encounters. Schools, we read, can do a lot to support healthy behaviors, to foster kindness and empathy, and to promote emotional self-regulation as well as “self-efficacy” (the capacity to be effective in relationships, school, and life). Mentorship matters as well.

More globally, Dr. Shatkin explains how powerful the media can be, and how important responsible media is to youth and their safe behaviors, or not. Youth are prone to what is called ‘contagion’: they can be stimulated to follow the behavior of others, including what they see and hear on TV, radio, and in the music they listen to. We see this problem in its most grave form when media sensationalize suicidal behavior, which almost invariably increases its incidence.

With stories (personal and professional), neuroscience and cognition, psychology and clinical experience Dr. Shatkin offers an abundance of understandable, engaging and actionable information. He explains why and shows how. We can reduce risk in the adolescents we love and teach, but only if we know how to do so and then do it. Born To Be Wild shows us the way to succeed.