Why a Teenager’s Brain is Like a Ferrari with Bicycle Brakes

By: Dr Justin Coulson

Why do adolescents take risks – a lot? It’s almost like they feel they’re immortal. Adolescents are impulsive. They seek constant stimulation. They don’t weigh risks before they dive headlong into situations.

Their impulse control and judgement seem lacking. It’s like they’re driving a Ferrari in top gear down a mountain with nothing more than bicycle brakes to slow them down – not that they plan on using brakes anyway.

Neurological Development

To understand why some of our adolescents take risks, we need to look inside their heads – literally.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain directly behind our forehead. This is our ‘executive control’ centre where we make decisions, calculate risks, make plans for the future, and control impulses based on our view of the future.

The limbic system is where we process emotion. The limbic system is also involved in how we regulate our emotions, respond to stress, and generate our immediate decisions about how to act.

Our adolescent’s prefrontal cortex won’t be fully developed until about their mid-twenties. This means that when they have a thought about doing something, their brain doesn’t have time to calculate the risk (prefrontal cortex) before they get caught up in the emotion (limbic system) and act on it.

This explains why they have so much attitude and get so angry in confrontations – they simply don’t consider the consequences clearly. And it explains why they get in the car with their stoned boyfriend, or drunk girlfriend.

The adolescent’s emotional responses override their rational brain and they go with what feels good. Reward trumps risk.

Optimistic Bias

Additionally, it seems that most humans have a strong optimistic bias. We actually think that good things will happen to us, and we minimise the likelihood that bad things will happen. Adolescents are as vulnerable to this bias as we are – perhaps more so due to their still developing brain, and this increases the likelihood that any of us will take risks, regardless of our age.

In a nutshell

Adolescents take risks because they are highly responsive to emotion and the promise of reward (thank to limbic system development), and because they are still in their infancy in terms of planning ahead, evaluating risk, and weighing potentially harmful consequences (thanks to an under-developed prefrontal cortex). As a consequence, they take risks because they think they’re invulnerable – they either fail to see the risk, or consider the reward to be worth the risk.

What can parents do about it?

Patiently Suffer (but do it with a purpose)

It sounds trite, but it is really the best advice there is. Your teens will try you. They’ll be emotional. They’ll do and say dumb things. They need you to be patient as they explore their new (brain) powers – especially when it seem like those new powers don’t work very well!

Invest in the Relationship

This is the extension to being patient. While our adolescents are doing and saying dumb things, they need us to be their ‘safe place’. Some days it will feel impossible. But it’s what they need and want – even when they push you away and deny it (and swear and say they hate you.)

Maintaining connection is key to having influence in our teen’s decision making processes.

Have the Hard Conversations

To have reasoned discussion, you need two things

  1. The capacity to be reasonable when your adolescent is unreasonable, and
  2. The right information to share with him or her

As an example, let’s say your daughter is experimenting sexually. You’re angry. She’s too young! He’s a drop-kick. Hell, it’s not even legal!

In spite of all that, you can’t lock her up in her room. And yelling and carrying on isn’t going to encourage her to listen or change her behaviour.

Your job is to get educated, be really clear about where you stand, talk with your daughter in a reasonable way to clarify issues and understand her perceptions and knowledge, and set limits effectively. Sounds simple, right?

You may need to be creative with this process. It might require special outings, ice-creams, dinners, or time together. And it takes a good relationship and a heavy dose of patience. But this is where influence happens – in gentle, patient, long-suffering conversations.

Do the Dance

In a perfect world, our children will set their own limits once we have had a reasoned discussion, and then said, “So, what do you think is the best way forward from here?”

In the real world… adolescents hate having their autonomy stifled. We push, they resist.

So while the text book says we need to set limits and enforce them, the truth is, we do a kind of a dance with them. We negotiate, disagree, try again, and ultimately form a compromise.

Be available

Sometimes our kids don’t want to do something risky. They want the brakes to be applied… but they don’t know how. Give them a promise that they can call you anytime and you’ll be there to help.

We should always remember:

  • Letting our kids know our standards (and keeping them high) is linked with kids actually living up to our standards.
  • We do need to monitor and check in with our kids. Research tells us that monitoring (so long as it’s not too heavy and not too light) really does change the way our kids make decisions for the better.
  • Encourage good friendships. Quality social support (for you and your adolescent) can make things better and safer for everyone.
  • From time to time our children are going to do something risky – and the consequences will be potentially significant. We are their parent and we need to make sure they learn their lesson – but we also need to make sure they feel safe enough to come home and tell us.

Adolescents are wired to do things that will make us gulp. It’s a scientific fact – they take risks. Knowing that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to cope when it happens, but it can help us respond with what our kids need from us once the dust has settled.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

Feature image: Photo by Oleksandr Kurchev on Unsplash.

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