Born to Be Wild: Why Do Teenagers Take Risks?

An interview with author and child psychiatrist Dr. Jess Shatkin, Part 1.

Posted Nov 27, 2017

Public domain
The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy (circa 1636)
Source: Public domain




 

This week, Psych Unseen catches up with Dr. Jess Shatkin, author of the new book, Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. Dr. Shatkin is the Vice Chair for Education at the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital of New York at NYU Langone.

This is Part 1 of an interview with Dr. Shatkin about his new book. 

JP: First of all, in the spirit of full disclosure, you and I were in psychiatry residency training together 20 years ago at UCLA. Despite knowing you from that time, I was surprised to learn about some of the risky things that you did as a teenager. Or maybe I was just surprised that you reveal them early on in your book. I was curious to know if and when you shared those things with your own children and what you think about the wisdom of disclosing to our kids some of the stupid things we did when we were their age?  

JS: I self-disclosed because it helped me to explain why this topic has interested me so much and for so many years. The reality is that I was “saved,” if you like, by my parents who took charge and put a stop to my outlandish behavior. I was also saved by a good enough school that offered me some good teachers; frankly, my high school wasn’t great by any means, but it offered me enough stimulation to pull me away from a lot of risk-taking behavior. I’m also quite sure that my early reckless behavior had a big influence on my decision to become a child/adolescent psychiatrist. And I wanted to write up my research on this topic into as much of a story as is possible so that it would be readable, and exposing myself a bit seemed a good and honest way to start things off. But you bring up an important point—how much we tell our kids about our own behavior is an issue for all parents to consider. There is no absolute “right” answer, but I do encourage parents to think carefully about what they want to tell their kids about their own histories before they share it, to be thoughtful, in other words, about their approach. 

In my case, my kids have long known that I come from a family with a history of some rough and rowdy behavior, so my relatively small transgressions (in comparison to a few of my siblings) are not a surprise to them; also, they are now 16 and 19, so even if I had revealed something they didn’t know, it would have been less of a concern because they can now process that information more easily; and third, in the book I try and explain why kids take risks in the first place and that there is so much more we can do, some of which is common sense and some of which takes a bit more planning, so in no way am I advocating that our kids should be off doing the risky things they sometimes do. Rather, I am trying to help them to understand why risk happens and then how to prevent what you can; considering all of that, I’m quite proud for my kids to read the book…if they ever would!

JP: You start the book by exposing the myth that teenagers think of themselves as invincible. The very word “risk” seems to acknowledge that behaviors can be dangerous, but that something about teenagers makes them especially likely to override warnings about danger. You suggest that the reward of novelty seeking is one thing that does this—but if so, is there any hope that parents can get kids to avoid risky behaviors in the first place without trying them first? As you mention, for many teenagers, “abstinence-only” approaches have not proven particularly effective in reducing risky sexual behaviors.

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Woodstock Festival Mud Stage, Omasz (2008)
Source: Public domain

JS: I think there’s a lot we can do to reduce risk without our kids having to experiment with everything, always learning by experience. Yes, we need to experiment to grow and learn, and in that process, some risks will be taken; and experience is a great teacher, but not the only one. And as I point to in the book, some risks are great risks to take (e.g., trying out for the team or running for student council) that we don’t want to discourage. But we will be better served, I think, when we steer our kids towards healthy risks (e.g., the gymnastics or football team, playing in a rock band, performing theatre, rocking climbing on the weekends with proper gear, etc.), which can sometimes be dangerous but are nothing compared to driving drunk or having unprotected sex. I want parents and teachers and clinicians to recognize that most kids are driven to take some risks (although there’s a lot of variation), so we need to be a bit more empathic, structure our world so that we can protect our kids, and find healthy ways to channel need for speed.

JP: Continuing this line of thinking, I’ve always liked the C.S. Lewis quotation that says, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” When you write about how both novelty and associated emotion enhance learning, it suggests that you agree that there’s no better teacher than experience. Does this mean that teenagers can’t really be taught effectively by lecturing? If so, how should parents and schools modify lecturing or teaching to decrease risky teenage behaviors? You always hear about how some parents tell their kids to come to them if they’re thinking about smoking cigarettes or marijuana and who are willing to experience that together. What do you think about that approach?

JS: Lecturing isn’t a great way of teaching anything, although it does happen and sometimes seems necessary. But finger-wagging and “throwing the book” at our kids doesn’t get us very far. We get much more by identifying the rewards they want and then providing them lots of opportunities to behave well so that they can earn those rewards. I give a lot of examples of what parents can do differently— things like more careful monitoring (parents who monitor their kids and their activities have kids who take much less risk), using behavioral parenting techniques (which has great outcomes that go beyond just less risk and better behavior and even into better physical health and emotional satisfaction in middle age), using cognitive psychology informed “gist” thinking strategies so that kids learn to grasp the big picture (e.g., identifying “red alerts,” or establishing decision-making algorithms in advance, or making an emotional connection to the risky behavior in question, etc.), and so on. Regarding a shared drug or alcohol experience with your kids, I think that is highly unwise. As a general rule, I encourage parents to limit access and not engage in a so-called “harm reduction” approach (e.g., “you can drink two beers but not more than that at the party”). Parents can help to structure their kids’ time, monitor them closely, and so on. We should take that approach for as long as we can. However, as it stands in the US and most countries now, if your kid hits 16, there’s little chance he or she hasn’t been to a party with drugs and alcohol and people having sex. Given that reality, we can still use these strategies I’m talking about, while also incorporating some harm reduction techniques (e.g., you will take Uber back and forth to the party, or I’ll pick you up or you simply can’t go to the party) which help kids to set limits but don’t condone this behavior.

JP: We all know that peer pressure is another element that teens consciously and unconsciously weigh against known risks. You discuss why adolescents might be particularly sensitive to peer pressure, but what do we know about why kids exert that peer pressure on their peers? It seems both manipulative and entertaining, but I suspect it’s also a way for young people to learn about risk, by egging on their peers to do stupid things.

JS: I think that peer pressure exists for evolutionary reasons—our relations with our peers are of vital importance because it’s how we find mates with whom we will have children and raise families. Only those who mate and have children are “successful” in the eyes of evolution. And so, we succeed or don’t in the world of our peers, not our parents. Peer pressure, then, helps us set our social hierarchy and determine who will rise to the top and be the most desired mates. Peer pressure puts kids in some pretty dangerous situations, yes, and it’s one way they learn about the world but far from the only way.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview, coming soon.

References

Shatkin J (2017). Born To Be Wild.  New York: Penguin Random House LLC.