Is Brain Development Really to Blame for Risky Teen Behavior?

Every month, we keep you informed on the latest studies and research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at a recent study, which challenges previous notions on the reasoning behind teens’ risky behavior.

Studies have long pointed to brain development as the driving factor behind teens making risky decisions, but a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University is challenging that notion. The study puts forth that, while there are many factors at play, teens are simply curious and want to learn about the world.

The authors of the study say that the brain development theory neglects to consider the various types of adolescent risk taking. Teen lives are filled with first-time experiences, from driving to flirting to dealing with stress. Sensation-seeking peaks during the adolescent years, which causes teens to gravitate towards new and exciting experiences; however, according to lead study author Dr. Daniel Romer, “What’s happening is that adolescents lack experience…when you’re trying things for the first time, you sometimes make mistakes [and] researchers have interpreted this as a lack of control when, for most youth, it’s just exploration.” Study authors also point out that teens who display a sensation seeking tendency are not necessarily more likely to engage in substance use.

That said, there’s no argument against the fact that adolescence is a critical time of growth. While being careful not to restrict their development, here are a handful of tips to help your teen fuel that curiosity and explore the world in a safe way:

  1. Tell stories from your own experiences. We hate to admit it, but teens can sometimes adopt a view of “boring until proven otherwise” on their parents’ lives. Your teen never met you as a teenager, so it’s difficult for them to comprehend that you once had similar experiences. Once they can relate to you more, they may be more likely to come to you when they’re in a tricky situation, instead of turning to their friends who are also figuring it out as they go.
  2. Educate them on the risks. Make sure your teen knows the potential consequences for making dangerous choices, such as drinking and driving, meeting up with strangers or abusing substances. After all, studies show that teens whose parents talk to them about substance abuse are 50% less likely to use drugs.
  3. Check in on them. They may not look up from their phone while muttering “fine” when asked how their days went, but teens still appreciate you being interested in their lives. When the time comes for them to ask for advice, they’ll already know you care and are there for them.
  4. Talk to other parents. See how other parents are dealing with situations with their teens so you can get a second opinion. Parenting doesn’t come with a rulebook, so don’t be afraid to seek out advice from others.
  5. Educate yourself. There are several things you can do in your home and community to help prevent certain risky behaviors. In the case of over-the-counter medicine abuse, you can learn the risks and how you can safeguard your home.

What do think of the study’s findings? Do you have any other tips for supporting teens in their desire to learn about the world while simultaneously keeping them safe?