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  • Dawn Spragg

Adolescents and Risk Taking

Recently I've been exploring wide-spread and enduring beliefs about teenagers. This month I was thinking about how we as a society often explain the risky behaviour of adolescents, by saying, Oh, they think they're going to live forever, and I wondered, do they really?

Teens are infamous for their poor decision making, renowned as reckless drivers and as users of alcohol and drugs. Research reports that forty percent of adolescents didn't use a condom the last time they had sex, nearly fifty percent have tried cigarettes, while a full quarter of them smoke marijuana on a monthly basis. (1) But I can tell you, that, never once, during all my years as a counselor, has a teen said to me, Oh, I'm invincible, nothing can hurt me. I like to point out is that although 40% of teens didn't use a condom the last time they had sex, 60% did, and that only a minority of teens (also about 40%) are having sex at all. Most teens understand mortality, even if their own death still seems far off. Many have already lost people close to them, or been exposed to death through the media.

Research confirms that adolescents understand risk better than they are given credit for. In a 1993 study, adolescents expressed beliefs about their relative vulnerability that were statistically similar to that of an adult. (3) There is even evidence to suggest that teens overestimate the probability of their untimely death. (4)

So what's going on here? To make good judgments, a person must be able to assess their situation and evaluate the possible consequences of it. This involves a high level of information processing, and while teens’ brains are becoming more streamlined and efficient, this process is not finished until adulthood, around age 24. (5) One of the last parts of their brains to develop is the pre-frontal cortex which regulates reasoning, and helps us think before we act, a skill that is vital to planning ahead. (6)

Because teens brains are not fully mature yet, teens are also far more responsive to reward than adults. This means that even if they understand the risks of a certain action, its reward might seem great enough to make it worthwhile. (7) Such a reward can be as little as being noticed by their peers. In fact, teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when friends are present and watching. (8)

Even if all this wiring were strictly in place, it is also true that teens lack the life experiences they need to be able to understand their situation and the likely outcomes of it. The poor decisions they make today might be a catalyst for the good decisions they make tomorrow.

I began writing this series because how we perceive teens has an effect on how we treat them. If we believe that teens think they are invincible, then we try to keep them from danger by pointing out the risks to them. Think about the famous DARE ad in the eighties, of an egg frying in a skillet, while a deep, ominous voice explained it was supposed to represent a brain on drugs. But if our perception of teens is false, than our actions to help them are misguided. DARE, itself, has now been shown to have been largely ineffective. (9) Given what is now known about adolescent development, a better program might be more explicit about the rewards of a life lived without drugs, while providing teens with the decision making skills needed to to make judicious choices.

As parents and educators, this needs to be our lane too. There are a number of ways we can focus on helping our teen understand the rewards of less risk averse behaviour, while at the same time helping to make them better judges of their actions.

  1. Let teens think for themselves. When concerns arise about risky behaviour have your teenagers talk to you about what they think the risks are and how they might be able to avoid putting themselves in danger. Help them also to identify and pursue their passions in lieu of risky behaviour.

  2. Be in partnership about consequences. Once your teenagers have identified the risk for themselves, and ways in which they can keep safe, you can work together to decide on the consequences of their action and/or inaction.

  3. Offer rewards for the behaviour you want. Spend more time focusing on rewards that motivate healthy behaviours than punishing negative behaviours.

(1) Age of Opportunity, Laurence Steinberg Ph.D.

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