Part 1 in this series “Seduced by Risk and Danger: The Teenage Mindset” can be found here.
It’s scary to think about how vulnerable teens are to danger. The teenage brain has been compared to a car with a powerful gas pedal and weak brakes when stimulated by the presence, or even expected witnessing, of other teens (Steinberg, 2008). They pull away from us, are drawn to their peers and then rev each other up into risky experimenting and sensation-seeking. It’s enough to make any parent want to put their teen on house arrest until they are old enough to exercise restraint. Parents also may want to resort to other desperate measures such as trying (in vain) to control, scare or punish teens. In fact, the most common ineffective approaches are fueled by feelings of powerlessness and anxiety, and then perpetuated by habit and lack of alternatives, as teens push for independence.
Popular ineffective approaches have some common themes: they overpower teens, fail to make contact with them, don’t provide teens with tools they need to stay safe, and don’t take into account the teenage mindset.
Common ineffective approaches include:
- Lecturing or talking too much, projecting fears and anxiety onto teens. Negative effect: hogs all the space in the conversation, causes teens to tune out, obscures teens’ own concerns or inner conflict about danger — leading them to defend the opposite position.
- Authoritarian methods of control and punishment. Negative effect: creates secrecy, rebellion and defiant acting out, increasing teens’ risk for danger. Sacrifices parents’ relationship with teens – their most important resource. Deprives teens of skill-building opportunities.
- Educating or cautioning teens about dangers or getting promises from them to behave. Negative effect: Doesn’t work, fails to provide tools, can be off-putting or insulting since teens are typically aware of the dangers (but get overtaken by feelings).
Containing Teens with Limits
Parents can become more empowered by using approaches informed by the teenage mindset. Monitoring teens’ activities and limiting their exposure to danger (when implemented non-punitively) does in fact reduce risk (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010) and is part of good parenting. But it’s unrealistic to watch teens 24/7. And teens who are too sheltered have as many difficulties in adulthood as those who are high risk-takers (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010).
Teens must test themselves in the world, especially with peers, to potentiate brain development and acquire the skills and capacities needed for healthy autonomy and social competence during this critical window of brain growth (Costandi & Blakemore, 2014; Society for Neuroscience, 2011).
Staying Connected to Teens through a Positive Relationship
Though monitoring teens’ activities and friends — online and actual — has been found to help reduce risk (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010), this effect is only in part attributable to restricting their exposure to danger. The most effective way for parents to know what’s going on with teens and keep track of them is through a positive connection with them. This is built by being tuned in, emotionally present, and respectful. Parents are not as helpless as they feel.
The most protective measure against underage drinking, sexual activity, and violence for teens is a relationship with parents in which they feel supported, listened to and accepted — based on teens’ subjective experiences — not parents’ intentions. When teens feel safe with parents they can turn to them for help.
Going with, Rather than Against, the Tide in Talking to Teens
An informed strategy with teens is to be mindful of their limitations and intrinsic motivations or drives, using the momentum of their biases to our (and their) advantage. Teens who develop values and competencies are less likely to engage in dangerous behaviors. Parents can help teens find structured, supervised activities with other teens, such as team sports or work for a cause that’s meaningful to them. In this way, parents can help reduce opportunities for danger as well channel teens’ need for peers, novelty and intensity into healthy challenge (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010).
Tuning into Positive Behaviors and Values and Using Them as Motivators
To increase teens’ positive behaviors and values, notice and articulate them when they occur. Shift the balance of attention to positive rather than negative behavior. Parents can use values that matter to teens (such as looking out for a friend, being in control of their reputation, staying on a sports team), and lead with a positive motivation for safe decisions. Here the emphasis is on what teens want to do rather than what they should not do, activating higher mind thought rather than reactive defensiveness. This approach focuses on doing something meaningful, which is important to teens, instead of restraint — a subject of little interest to them.
For example, rather than be motivated to limit their drinking because of fear of the dangers of alcohol, a teen might decide to stay sober at a party in thinking about loyalty to a friend. They might want to be in a position to protect a friend who is likely to get into trouble.
Thinking Things Through in Advance and Collaboratively with Teens
Parents can help teens develop the skills to make better decisions by thinking things through in advance with them, finding out their concerns, and utilizing a non-judgmental, collaborative approach. Conversations with teens are more successful when parents listen more than talk. Ask questions in a curious, open and unimposing way (avoiding “leading the witness”).
Parents can align with teens by respecting the positive bias of the teenage brain toward excitement, action, novelty, and peers. Teens’ ability to experience life with intensity and vitality is actually enviable to adults who want to shut it down (Siegel, 2013). Approaching teens respectfully, parents can help them recognize the inherent bias of the teenage brain toward action and discovery, rather than restraint, when around peers. But, ironically, these propensities can cause powerful feelings to hijack their higher mind, seducing them into betraying themselves, their values and judgment. The process of thinking this through with teens and coming up with options in advance helps integrate the two brain systems that are not yet well synchronized: feelings/impulses and higher mind thinking and control.
Problem-Solving and Skill-Building
Problem-solving approaches have been found to be effective in protecting teens from danger (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010; National Research Council and Insittute of Medicine, 204; Windle et al., 2008). For example, parents can help teens who use alcohol learn to monitor and set limits on the amount they drink.
Teens care more about not being ostracized than they do about getting hurt. Parents might focus on figuring out with teens how to limit their drinking in a way that protects them from embarrassment. Parents also can help teens anticipate and avoid high-risk situations, setting boundaries for them where it’s unrealistic to expect them to set limits themselves.
As adolescents make their way into the world, they need a balance of freedom and limits, acceptance and guidance, redirection and natural consequence. This undertaking requires parents to summon the courage and steadiness to engage in a dance of holding on — but not too tight, and letting go — but not too much. It is a constant test of parents’ own inner sense of security, requiring frequent self-monitoring and the higher mind resolve to refrain from acting on feelings of rejection, anxiety and helplessness. The challenge is holding teens close enough to provide a secure base from which to grow, but allowing them enough autonomy to test themselves. Doing so, parents provide the foundation for teens to acquire the tools to make safe decisions and navigate the developmental challenges of adolescence.
Tips for parents to reduce dangerous risk-taking in teens
- Give teens autonomy and freedom in areas that are low-risk.
- Notice and promote teens’ strengths, positive interests and competencies.
- Anticipate risky situations and problem-solve in advance.
- Set limits when teens cannot set their own.
- Manage your own anxiety, feelings of helplessness and rejection. Protect your relationship with teens.
- Use an approach that is warm, non-judgmental and respectful of teens’ autonomy.
- Prepare for conversations and think about timing. Approach teens when both of you are calm.
- Listen, be curious, ask open-ended questions. Limit how much you say at one time.
- Be aware and monitor what teens are doing, who their friends are, including online.
- Be there at key times: after school, dinnertime, bedtime (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010).
- Do things together — such as family time, rituals, and activities teens enjoy (Kazdin & Rotella, 2010).
- Set a good example through moderation in your own life.
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.
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.