– Elizabeth Sowell, Ph.D., neuroscientist, UCLA Department of Neurology
With advanced brain-imaging technology, researchers have been learning more about how the human brain develops. One mystery experts have explored is why teenagers act the way they do: rebellious, impulsive and too willing to take risks. Now we may have an answer: one part of the adolescent brain is growing too fast, while another is growing too slowly.
Teenagers experiment with drugs. Drive too fast. Get angry and don’t know why.
“Pretty much the rebellion stage started kicking in right about age 12,” recalls Kim, currently 15.
What happens at age 12? According to new research from Temple University, teenagers feel emotions intensely, and care about how other kids feel about them. All that emotion resides in a part of the brain that grows quickly during adolescence. Meanwhile, the rational, careful, thoughtful part of the brain develops more slowly. That imbalance can cause kids to take risks.
“The parts of the brain that continue to develop during adolescence are the parts of the brain that we might expect when we think about typical, negative adolescent behaviors,” says Elizabeth Sowell, Ph.D., neuroscientist, UCLA Dept. of Neurology.
In fact, the study found that when kids were surrounded by other kids while participating in a simulated driving game, they were twice as likely to take risks.
“We know that adolescents are bigger risk takers, we don’t need the brain to tell us that. We know that they get in more car accidents than adults do,” says Sowell.
Experts say the good news is that while it may not be easy to teach teens to avoid risks, it’s not impossible, either.
“They do have the cognitive functions that allow them to control their emotions and organize. They’re just not as good at it, during the adolescent years, as they will be during adulthood,” says Sowell.
Experts say it helps to teach kids to ask themselves a question: ‘if you do this, what are the possible consequences?’ And don’t answer for them.
“Also, it’s much more rewarding for them if they come to the conclusion. Because it’s really coming from their heart and they know that whatever happens, they did the right thing for themselves,” says Diana, 15.
Tips for Parents
- Sometimes, stresses in your life can actually come from your friends or peers. They may pressure you into doing something you’re uncomfortable with, such as cheating, shoplifting, doing drugs or drinking, taking dangerous risks when driving a car, or having sex before you feel ready. (Nemours Foundation)
- Listen to your gut. If you feel uncomfortable, even if your friends seem to be okay with what’s going on, it means that something about the situation is wrong for you. This kind of decision-making is part of becoming self-reliant and learning more about who you are. (Nemours Foundation)
- Plan for possible pressure situations. If you’d like to go to a party but you believe you may be offered alcohol or drugs there, think ahead about how you’ll handle this challenge. Decide ahead of time — and even rehearse — what you’ll say and do. Learn a few tricks. If you’re holding a bottle of water or a can of soda, for instance, you’re less likely to be offered a drink you don’t want. (Nemours Foundation)
- Arrange a “bail-out” code phrase you can use with your parents without losing face with your friends. For instance, you might call home from a party where you’re feeling pressure to drink alcohol and say, “Can you come drive me home? I have a terrible earache.” (Nemours Foundation)
- Learn to feel comfortable saying “no.” With good friends you should never have to offer an explanation or apology. But if you feel you need an excuse for, say, turning down a drink or smoke, think up a few lines you can use casually. (Nemours Foundation)
- Hang with people who feel the same way you do. Choose friends who will speak up with you when you’re in need of moral support, and be quick to speak up for a friend in the same way. If you’re hearing that little voice telling you a situation’s not right, chances are others hear it, too. Just having one other person stand with you against peer pressure makes it much easier for both people to resist. (Nemours Foundation)
- Nemours Foundation
- UCLA Department of Neurology