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Risk-taking and the Teen Brain

November 03, 2014
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

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During adolescence, your child’s body matures and she becomes more self-sufficient and independent. These years also bring dramatic hormonal fluctuations, greater peer pressure, increased access to drugs, alcohol, sex, and the risk of unsafe driving practices. The problem is that the part of the brain that will in later years guide her logical thinking, judgment, prioritizing, and risk-assessment has yet to literally “get it together.” This can be a setup for disaster.

The neural networks in the brain that will ultimately guide your child’s self-control and goal-directed behavior are called executive functions. These circuits are located in the prefrontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to mature.

Until your teen’s brain matures, which won’t happen until she’s well into her twenties, she may be more impulsive and less logic-driven. Decisions you consider unreasonable and behaviors you know are dangerous may not be seen that way by your teen because of her still-developing brain. This body over brain influence puts her at risk for engaging in perilous behaviors, such as driving while talking on her cell phone, texting, or when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Learn more about how you can support your teen's social and emotional development.

Teenagers are three to four times more likely to die from risk-taking and accidents than non-elderly adults due to lapses in judgment and illogical decision-making. Adolescence is a critical time for you to help your teen build the self-awareness to resist and avoid high-risk behavior. Here are some strategies that can help you improve your adolescent’s judgment while her executive functions are still under construction.

Give Responsibilities: Give her opportunities to make choices, explore options, and learn from both the successes and authentic consequences of her choices. This means selecting responsibilities or decisions for her that are challenging, but where failure would not have harmful outcomes. If she asks for your advice, offer to be a supportive listener but not a director. The goal is for her to develop his judgment, so don’t jump in with corrections or advice. That will deprive her of owning the learning experience. Don’t chastise her if her outcome is unsuccessful. Rather, encourage her insights into what went wrong and what she might do differently next time.

Goal-Planning: Your adolescent also needs guidance to become aware of the potential consequences of his actions, and to resist making impulsive decisions or those based on peer influence. You can help him build these skill sets by providing opportunities for him to set personal goals and create a plan on how to achieve them. One way to do this is to ask him to write out a schedule of his plans that includes information about progress points and expectations. Join him in revisiting the plan periodically. Be positive and invite him to make adjustments. Explain to him that most professionals know that initial plans are just estimates and they plan for and make adjustments in response to their experiences along the way.

Decision-Making: Involve your teen in family decisions, like planning vacation activities, or coming up with community service ideas. In doing this, she can experience the satisfaction of planning the cost analysis, travel time, and schedule within a designated budget – such as a trip to a waterpark not far from your designated travel route.

Critical Analysis: Get your child involved in analyzing big decisions for the family. For instance, you can ask him to come up with the financial benefits of buying the family car that he wants. As you guide him to reliable consumer resources, he’ll have the “ah-ha” experience that not every advertisement is the absolute truth just because it appears to be presented as a fact.

Building Self-Control: Many teens are passionate about activities like video games and social media platforms, which can reduce their interest in academics, family time, and healthy eating and sleeping habits. If this sounds like your teen, you can use her passion as an opportunity to help your teen build self-control. Collaborate with her on a plan to cut back instead of just prohibiting any time spent at the pursuit. Help her find strategies to resist playing the game or going online whenever she feels like it with a planned schedule for use. With this approach you are building her skills of analyzing and recognizing the triggers or “risk factors” that limit her ability to resist temptation. This impulse control can lead to her decision not to read a text message when driving at a time when that choice literally saves her life.

Prioritize and Plan Ahead: Teachable moments are opportunities for building your child’s awareness of consequences. For example, if your teen forgets to mention he needs a poster board for a project until the night before it’s due, he’s showing his underdeveloped ability to prioritize. A teachable moment is lost if your teen experiences no authentic consequences for his failure to plan. Being grounded or losing privileges can be punishments, but this will not help build his brain’s ability to prioritize. He will learn more if you resist your desire to rescue him from a low grade and have him experience the real world consequences of his actions (or inaction) that are enforced by his teacher. Points off his grade now will have a direct impact on the planning, prioritizing, and goal-directed executive functions skills he needs for his next project and his future success. Just remind yourself these types of consequences will probably increase the likelihood that he will have a useable spare tire when he gets a late night flat on a rural road. 

Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. is a neurologist, former classroom teacher, and author of books for educators and parents. She is also one of the experts on the Social & Emotional Development section that was recently launched on the Parent Toolkit.

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