No two teenagers are the same, but if you’re a parent to one, you’ll know that when it comes to taking risks, teens are often terrible at making good decisions.
In fact, part of parenting is getting kids through their teenage years safe and sound while also trying to make sure they learn how to take sensible risks and not foolish ones. Young adults who never learn this lesson can end up in serious difficulty later in life.
But did you know that there are firm biological reasons why adolescents find this a challenge? A group of scientists from the University of Delaware in the US recently published a paper showing that the two centres in the brain which govern risk taking and stop people from acting on impulses develop at different rates.
So if you know a teenager who seems to take more risks than others, the reason is likely to be that there is a large difference in the rate of development between these two parts of their brain.
"The brain and hormones start changing between eight and 10 years of age and that drives a lot of the changes in kids' capacity to understand the world around them and who they are. But it's in the second decade they have to learn how to take care of themselves in different ways, to understand their emotions and to work out how they feel about risk,' said Samantha Dockery, senior lecturer in applied psychology and director of the Biology, Emotions and Transitions Studies Lab at UCC.
“What’s too much risk? How does taking risks make me feel? Why is it so much fun and what are the consequences? Not all teens enjoy risk taking, but a lot do. They’re neurally motivated towards it because it’s thrilling, it’s fun and there is some evidence that teens don’t have as much capacity to understand consequences as adults do. They’re more influenced by their impulsivity.”
Dockery studies the psycho-biology of adolescent development, including how brain changes influence the social behaviour of adolescents.
“We know that risk taking is fun for teenagers and they’re much more driven by that than an adult would be. As adults, we have more fear, anxiety and worry about the consequences of our actions that tempers our risk taking,” she said.
Their heightened social anxiety makes a lot of typical social situations feel risky to them
In the past, it was thought that teenagers just didn’t understand consequences but, according to Dockery, that underplays their agency.
“Teenagers should engage in risk taking, it’s good for them. Without it they don’t learn much about themselves and how they fit into the world. But there is positive and negative risk taking. It’s up to parents, teachers and communities to provide kids with opportunities to push their boundaries and take moderate risks without catastrophic consequences.”
Examples of positive risk taking include going on stage to sing, dance or act, being in a sports team, making new friends – all risky things for teens as they involve the potential for a loss of face or embarrassment.
“Things like that are felt much more keenly by teens than by adults, and I think sometimes adults forget just how all-important those kind of social interactions are for teens,” Dockery said. “Their heightened social anxiety makes a lot of typical social situations feel risky to them. If they don’t have that, their development won’t progress as well as it could. They’ll never get a sense of their true capacity.”
Dockery also agrees there are some lessons which are much better to learn when you’re young and the relative stakes are lower. “They need to know their own limits and what’s too much for them.”
According to Niamh Connolly, a cognitive behavioural therapist who works with adolescents aged 16-25 in Dungarvan in Co Waterford, risk versus reward is a hugely important aspect of understanding teenagers.
“MRI research has shown that the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until a person is aged around 25. At the same time the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that’s involved in emotive thinking and things like fight or flight and ‘act first, think later’ is operating at full tilt much earlier on,” she said.
“So you have an imbalance and it can last for years. If you line up 20 different 19 year olds, you’ll get 20 different gaps in development. We tend to think that people become adults at 18, but really that’s just an arbitrary number.”
The extent of the gap between these two parts of the brain depends on a person’s experiences, genetics, their backgrounds and their biology. This gap exists across all mammalian species, according to Connolly.
If they haven't learned how to handle peer pressure and moderate risky behaviour, the stakes are higher if they make a mistake
“There was probably some sort of evolutionary advantage to this, and my guess is that it was originally about getting the proverbial caveman out of the cave. Seeking out new experiences and thrilling risks was probably about encouraging the adolescent to explore and find out what life is like for themselves,” she said.
The problem today for adolescents is that if they haven’t learned how to handle risk at a relatively young age, when they first move out of the family home, perhaps to go to university, the stakes are that much higher if they misstep.
“Social situations at universities can involve alcohol, members of the opposite sex, drugs, and can generally just be difficult to navigate. You want them to be able to say no when they’re offered drugs or if everyone else is getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking.”
If they haven’t learned how to handle peer pressure and moderate risky behaviour, the stakes are higher if they make a mistake. Connolly’s advice for parents is simple, don’t be afraid to be the parent and remember it’s not your job to be your child’s best friend.
“Remember that when half your 16-year-old’s class has gone to a party where there is no adult present and you know there is alcohol or drugs, it’s your job to say no. No teenager wants to be left out but you have to stay strong and make the tough decisions,” she said.
“That’s very difficult because teenagers are really distressed by exclusion. It really does feel like a life or death issue for them, and there are good biological reasons for that. You have to be sensitive to that and I suppose remember yourself what it was like when you were that age. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. If you were outside the group thousands of years ago, you could literally die.”