The teenage years pose the highest risk of any age group for behaviors leading to fatal or permanent injuries. Accidents are the leading cause of death of youth between ages 12-24. The top dangers, according to CDC surveys are: regular alcohol use; binge drinking; tobacco; illegal drug use; fighting; carrying a weapon; suicidal thoughts; suicide attempts; and unprotected sex.
These behaviors also compound risk through increasing the likelihood of engaging in other dangerous activities. For example, alcohol is the leading factor in fatal teen car crashes and other accidents, and is often involved in self-harm, suicide, unplanned sex, and violence (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2004; Windle et al., 2008; Winston et al., 2008).
Teen Behaviors — Positive and Negative — Shape Their Brains
Apart from injury and mortality, early onset of risky behavior can set teens up for compromised mental and physical health and lower productivity over their lifespan (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010). Research suggests that adolescence may represent a “critical period” in which the brain is particularly sensitive to being shaped by experiences (Costandi & Blakemore, 2014; Society for Neuroscience, 2011). This creates both vulnerability and opportunity depending on what behaviors are practiced during this time (Costandi & Blakemore, 2014; Society for Neuroscience, 2011).
Alcohol and drugs have lasting effects on the reward center and other aspects of the developing teenage brain, creating a predisposition to addiction and affecting the body’s ability to manage stress (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010; Society for Neuroscience, 2011). Teens who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become addicted than those who wait until 21 (Windle et al., 2008).
Problems with Too Many or Too Few Risks for Teens
Teens who take the most risks have relatively poorer outcomes in adulthood in relationships and work (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010). Interestingly, however, teens who are risk-averse have equally poor outcomes as those who are the riskiest (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010). Teens need some freedom to experiment and test themselves in order to activate their potential. Adolescents’ drive for excitement and exploration is intended to propel development of identity, and can be channeled into constructive self-exploration and challenge when parents can tolerate teen separation. Examples of parents promoting healthy teen autonomy include allowing teens to choose their own interests, appearance, viewpoints, and ways of relating.
Myths about Teens
Research has dispelled common misconceptions about teens. Contrary to popular belief, studies show that teens are capable of accurately evaluating risk. They are no more irrational in doing so than adults, who similarly underestimate likely dangers and overestimate improbable ones (Costandi & Blakemore, 2014). And when teens are out of control it’s not due to “raging hormones” but, rather, to the unique — and potentially positive — aspects of the developing teenage brain (Siegel, 2013).
Finally, in spite of their partiality to peers and sometimes off-putting behavior at home, teens need connection with their parents as much as before, and want to be able to turn to them for help. Minor day-to-day struggles with teens are often less distressing to teens than to parents, who may take personally adolescents’ unfriendliness, preference for peers, and distancing. Parents may not recognize that for teens being argumentative or taking alternative or contrary points of view may simply be part of normal adolescent self-expression and testing out identities separate from their parents’. Here parents can remind themselves that teens are in transition and their points of view are often transitory and experimental.
Why are teens so prone to sensation seeking, risk-taking and poor choices?
From an evolutionary perspective the task of adolescence is to prepare to leave home, forge an identity, and venture into the world. But it’s not so easy to leave the relative security of the nest and find yourself suddenly out there with peers, unprotected and unskilled. That is where the teenage brain comes in handy. It leads teens to explore by enticing them toward emotional intensity, creative exploration, excitement, socializing, and needing peer approval — the hallmarks of the teenage brain (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010; Siegel, 2013).
It is with peers that teens can develop new social and negotiating skills, allowing them to begin to consolidate an identity in the world separate from parents.
Risk Escalation and Contagion Around Peers
The adolescent brain has been compared to a car with a powerful gas pedal and weak brakes when it’s activated by excitement, particularly the mere presence of peers or anticipation of being observed by peers (Steinberg, 2008). Teens with friends who do risky behaviors are at greater risk of following suit. Associating with deviant peers is the strongest predictor of teens using drugs (Steinberg, 2008).
Consistently, two or more peers in the car more than triples the risk of fatal car crashes for teens through increased risk taking and distraction (Winston et al., 2008).
Why Teens Seek Out a Rush
Lower baseline levels of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, leads teens to feel easily bored and ready to rev up. Fueling the fire, the teenage brain releases higher levels of dopamine in response to novelty – creating an intense rush and making teens more vulnerable to risk and addiction (Siegel, 2013). A related finding is that teens have been found to be particularly sensitive to the pleasurable effects of drinking. They have the capacity to drink greater quantities of alcohol than adults before experiencing negative physical effects (Windle et al, 2008).
With peers acting as a stimulus for risk-taking, a reward system on overdrive, and an underdeveloped capacity for restraint in the face of temptation, it’s no wonder unsupervised teens can be headed for trouble. It’s not that teens fail to understand the risks involved in their behaviors or that they cannot use higher mind thinking and planning to make good judgments. But when their reward system is activated around peers, the power of the anticipated rush is so strong that this feeling dominates their mindset and the thrill just seems worth it. Though their higher mind and cognitive control system is developing, it’s not well enough connected to the amped up impulsive, emotional part of their brain in order to guide it (Steinberg, 2008).
We can use what we know about teens’ biases, strengths, and motivations to inform our strategies, and let go of ineffective approaches such as warnings, lecturing and punishment. Risk-taking is not caused by a lack of information about possible dangers. Educating or cautioning teens about dangers or getting promises from them to behave does not work by itself. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series for parent tips and advice on how to best protect teens from danger, using our knowledge of the teenage brain and mindset to reach them.
Costandi, M. & Blakemore, S. (2014, January). Adolescent brain development.
Retrieved from https://thinkneuroscience.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/adolescent-brain-development
Kazdin, A. & Rotella, C. (2010, February). No brakes! Risk and the adolescent brain.
Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2010/02/no_brakes_2.2.html
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2004). Reducing Underage Drinking:
A Collective Responsibility. Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking, Richard J. Bonnie and Mary Ellen O’Connell, Editors. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Siegel, D. J. (2013). Brainstorm: the power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
Society for Neuroscience. (2011). Teen brain vulnerability exposed. Retrieved from
Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28, 78-106.
Windle, M., Spear, L., Fuligni, A., Angold, A., Brown, J., Pine, D., … Dahl, R. (2008). Transitions into underage and problem drinking: Developmental processes and mechanisms between 10 and 15 years of age. Pediatrics, 121, S273-S289. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2243C
Winston, F. K., Kallan, M. J., Senserrick, T. M., & Elliott, M. R. (2008). Risk factors for death among older child and teenaged motor vehicle passengers. Archives of Pediatric Medicine, 162(3), 253-260. doi: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2007.52