Safety & the teen brain
Talking with teens about risk
Do you worry that the teens in your life might put themselves in harm’s way by using alcohol and/or drugs, texting while driving, and engaging in other risky behaviors?
Your fears are justified, says Jess P. Shatkin, an adolescent psychiatrist and professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. “We see a dramatic increase in both death and illness rates as kids enter puberty until about age 25.”
It’s not that teens think they’re invincible. In fact, Shatkin, who’s also the author of “Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe,” says they actually tend to overestimate their chances of harmful consequences.
So why do they still take risks? One explanation: Changes in the brain of teens alter their priorities in ways that may override their fear of danger. That means just telling them “no” isn’t enough.
Set boundaries for your teen — while you can
Supervision, rules and consequences are important guardrails against dangerous behavior. Keeping teens busy with after-school activities, limiting their access to social media and heading off risky situations (unsupervised parties, for example) are all effective ways to help keep them safe.
Just remember: These measures work better for 13-year-olds than 17-year-olds. “We sometimes see kids from very restrictive environments engaging in incredibly risky behaviors as soon as they leave for someplace like college, where they don’t have those restrictions,” says Mitch Prinstein, a developmental psychologist and chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. “Helping kids figure out how to make good decisions for themselves is going to carry them through, no matter what environment they’re in.”
So, how can you do that?
When teens say ...
All my friends are doing it! It’s tempting, Prinstein says, to dismiss their concerns with a response like, “Who cares what everyone else thinks? None of that’s going to matter in three years.” But to teens, the next few years of social life can feel like forever. If you want to reach your teen, help them find solutions that make sense in their world.
But I’d never smoke/drink/drive dangerously. By their mid-teens, most adolescents have the ability to make good decisions when they’re cool-headed. But when they’re tired, hungry, angry, in front of peers or in the heat of a situation, they may find themselves making choices they wouldn’t under other circumstances. Shatkin recommends walking teens through decision-making processes in advance, brainstorming solutions and even role-playing. What if their friends dare them to do something dangerous? Are there ways they could say no without losing face?
Lots of people do it and they’re fine. Most teens know someone who has engaged in risky behaviors without running into trouble. “I would tell them, ‘It only takes once, and then your whole life is changed,’” Shatkin advises. Help them imagine the real-life consequences of one instance of bad luck. If they drove after drinking and got a DUI, how would they get to school or work without a license? What would they miss out on if they were injured or even paralyzed in a crash? And worse, how would they feel if they hurt someone else?
They are listening
The worst mistake parents can make is not talking to their teens about risk at all. The conversation may be uncomfortable, and it may seem like they’re not listening, but research shows that a teen’s attitude toward risky behaviors tends to fall halfway between those of their parents and those of their peers. “So,” Prinstein says, “I often tell parents: ‘You’ve got about 50% influence. Use every bit of it.’”
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