Every year, as high school ends for the year, the level of teen partying increases. Warm weather summer evenings are perfect for outdoor gatherings and celebrating another year’s end. Who can blame them? They just want to have fun. Unfortunately, along with the energetic, enthusiastic celebrating too often comes a tragedy; a fatal car accident, a drowning, some major property damage or a fatal drug overdose.
The most puzzling and dismaying part of these unfortunate events is that normally responsible teens can do some unbelievably risky things – sadly with horrible consequences. As a parent of teenagers, most of us can think back and shudder at the many risks we took when we were their age. Do you remember retelling those stories of crazy things done as this kind of ‘rite of passage’ or some other justification for our outrageousness? Upon reflection, we may have known we were acting really immaturely, foolishly and dangerously, but we did it anyway.
So why do perfectly normal, usually responsible, teens act at times like irresponsible children? Why do they lose their good judgement? A great deal of research of the brain over the last two decades provides many of the answers.
While a teenager may resemble an adult on the outside, a peek inside his/her brain tells quite a different story. The cerebral cortex is still growing and undergoing massive change during the teen years. Neurotransmitters radically transform in number and type, creating a desire for risk taking. New connections are being forged to areas of the brain responsible for higher conceptual thinking. The prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher judgement, wisdom and forethought, is the last area of the brain to develop. A mature frontal cortex can multi-task, evaluate, and decide with relative ease. Whereas the newly forming teen’s frontal cortex is much more easily stressed. Ask them to multi-task, evaluate and make a decision, and they may fall apart or get irritated and very upset. If impaired by alcohol or distracted by a cell phone while driving, results can be disastrous.
Risk-taking and thrill-seeking are not always destructive. They also have the positive function of helping teens explore the world, cultivate interests, master skills and eventually leave home. Teens do need parents, teachers and other adults to help them manage their lives while their brains mature. In fact, we need to act as their prefrontal cortex at times! Despite what they may want, we are not here to serve them; to provide use of the car, fill the fridge with food they like or dispense money like a human ATM!
What can a parent to do reduce the risks?
Know their friends.
Friends look out for each other. When parents know and like their teenager’s friends, it is easier to feel confident that the peer influence will be positive. Remind your teenager of the importance of friends helping each other make good choices.
Don’t try to control your teenager. Use your influence.
Control from above will result in power struggles. The influence of you as a coach from the sidelines will be more effective. Nurture respect, acceptance and other positive aspects of your relationship. You have to give respect to get it. When they are not with us, we hope that our ideas (and influence) will be whispering in their heads when faced with difficult choices.
Help them be assertive to negative peer pressure.
Are you confident that they know the dangers your teens may face? More importantly, do they know what to do or say to be assertive with peers who may be pressuring them to do something they think is dangerous, like getting into a car where the driver has been drinking or trying a new drug.
Make it clear to them that there is no shame in calling for help.
We want our teenagers to call us or another responsible adult when they sense they are in difficult or potentially unsafe situations. Try to help your son or daughter see you as non-judgemental, so when they do something foolish or take unnecessary risks, like drink too much at a party, for example, they will feel it is very safe to call you for help. Reassure them that they have used their good judgement when they do call.
As parents, we can help our sons and daughters with higher-level critical thinking and judgement using the with the suggestions noted above. By engaging young people in conversations about the wisdom of their choices, we help them activate their developing frontal cortex and reduce the chance of making poor decisions or being involved in serious and fatal accidents.