Even the brightest children find their teenage years tough going. You probably remember your own — and all the weird things you did! Because teens are hard wired to take risks. They have seriously poor judgement, and can make simply terrible decisions.
One reason is that teens are just discovering the joys of dopamine — the brain’s reward chemical. It’s released whenever you get something you want. But a teen’s baseline level of dopamine is lower than an adult’s, which is why they’re always saying they’re bored.
So they’re forever chasing after a dopamine high. Teens need more excitement to trigger one than an adult, but release more dopamine once it gets going, so their high feels bigger. And so they feel driven to do ever crazier and crazier things. And are much more likely to become addicted to drugs and so on.
In adults the pre-frontal cortex calms impulsive behaviour, and thinks strategically through it’s consequences. But the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until you’re around 25. Which is why adolescents often take such rash decisions.
The amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional centre, is also immature in adolescents. Which is why they have difficulty understanding their own and other people’s feelings. It’s also not properly connected to their pre-frontal cortex yet, so they’re much more likely to make decisions based on emotion rather than on logic.
Teens also emphasise benefits over risks. They’re perfectly aware of the dangers, but play them down. Instead stressing positive aspects like fun, the shared experience, and the thrill of breaking the rules. Especially when they’re hanging out with their friends. Teens feel a huge need to be connected to their peers, and often do stupid things just to be included in whatever their friends are doing.
So can you influence your teen’s behaviour?
Yes, if you focus on how they see the world.
That means emphasising rewards and what they have to gain. Rather than talking about punishments, or what they might lose. Because adolescents are far more likely than adults to go for something they want, even when there are potentially serious downsides.
So you’re more likely to get a teen to study if you highlight a reward: “Work hard so you’ll get to college.” Rather than threatening: “If you don’t study, you can’t go to the party.” That’s just setting yourself up for a battle of wills…
Take advantage of their need for dopamine highs by finding positive experiences for them. Like learning a new academic skill for a studious teen. Or a physical skill for one who’s athletic. Because these raise dopamine levels just like riskier behaviours.
And be involved in their lives, because adolescents whose parents monitor their activities, talk with them and eat together are at far less risk of substance abuse, for example, than those whose parents are more hands-off. And take part in fewer high-risk behaviours. And develop better decision-making and thinking skills.