I can still remember the mix of relief and trepidation I felt when my oldest child got his driver’s license. At last, I could leave behind the tension-filled soccer mom years and leave some of the driving to school or to practice to him.
But knowing teens’ reputation for risk-taking, I wasn’t completely comfortable with that idea, so I decided to do some research on the subject. As it turns out, teens brains are wired for risky behavior, especially where peers are involved. Adolescence is a developmental period where the brain is undergoing serious remodeling. This stage has implications not only for kids in cars, but in the classroom as well.
Temple University adolescent psychology professor Dr. Laurence Steinberg specializes in studying adolescent decision-making and risk-taking behaviors. He’s found that the risk–reward factors in decision making for teens are heightened around peers.
“It’s not so much that peers influence kids to take risks,” he said in an interview with NPR. “It’s that by activating their reward centers, peers make adolescents more sensitive to rewards in their immediate environment.”
So, what makes otherwise proficient kids become distracted, defiant and, at times, even dangerous?
How does the risk–reward circuitry work?
Turns out, it’s not that teens don’t take risk into consideration before deciding to speed down a curving hill, or skateboard through school hallways; it’s that they calculate risk differently.
According to National Geographic, from around the age of 11 through their mid-twenties, thrill seeking is characteristic of teen decision making and behavior. Every time they do something dangerous, daring, or challenging—and succeed—they get a little squirt of dopamine—the “reward” chemical in the brain. In some ways, it’s not unlike an addiction; the dopamine release makes them feel good and want more of that.
And trying something risky when they’re with friends makes that reward feel even greater.
This is because the prefrontal cortex, the center of higher thinking and impulse control in the brain, is still under construction. The emotional center, a more primal part of the brain, is not yet fully wired up with cognition to develop a feeling–thinking–acting circuit that promotes self-control and other higher-brain functioning. Researchers call this “connectivity.”
Connectivity is “probably the most important characteristic to continue developing during adolescence. And it is critical for success in the world, especially today,” according to Dr. Steinberg in a 2014 interview.
Research shows that teens who have stronger self-control do better in school and work, have better relationships, and are less prone to emotional and behavioral problems. So, that 15-year-old student in fifth period math who’s always clowning around isn’t necessarily doing it to be disruptive. He may be getting a rush out of, say, surreptitiously texting with the popular girl in class on a dare from his buddies. He’s acting on impulse.
To test the risk–reward hypothesis, researchers like Dr. Steinberg measure brain structure or connectivity in adolescents through brain imaging. He and fellow researchers have designed a video game to simulate driving along a city street, where participants earn extra points, for example, for driving through a light before it turns red. The researchers measure reactions and decision-making in different experimental settings, such as driving with a parent, alone, or with friends.
“Most 16-year-olds are not like adults when we test them on things like impulse control,” Dr. Steinberg said. “Because that [level of control] requires the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the emotion centers and reward centers of the brain to be fully mature.”
What’s normal, what’s not?
Studies show that this is a normal part of adolescent development. But it may occur at different rates in different children. Typically, girls start this neural refurbishment earlier than boys, and may develop self-control and self-regulation skills more quickly.
Learning differences or other neural delays, including ADHD or autism, may delay developing this brain connectivity even further. But “just because something is rooted in biology doesn’t mean that it’s not malleable and that there’s nothing we can do about it,” Dr. Steinberg told The New York Times, commenting on his 2017 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Dr. Steinberg notes that reports on his studies often miss out on a key implication for strengthening connectivity: we can also use these risk–reward–friends factors for the good. Designing team projects and collaborations, encouraging teens to participate in sports and after-school activities with friends, or supporting volunteer activities can promote connectivity.
And educators may promote opportunities to recognize and reward cooperation, collaboration, impulse inhibition, and self-control, both in the classroom and out. Kids brains respond more to reward than punishment, said Dr. Steinberg. Does it work every time? Like every other aspect of developing a strong learning environment, it depends. But the more tools and techniques in your toolbox, the better.
“Sometimes you have to say the same thing six times before it works,” said Steinberg.
This was certainly true of reinforcing driving safety messages for my son. But it also helps that, in the county where we live, teens under 18 can’t drive alone with their friends in the car until they’ve been driving awhile with a good record.
When Working with Teens, Factor in the Developing Mind
The research points to something that’s critical for educators to plan around: teens are not just young adults. The work of adolescence is to test out new limits, to venture out of the safety zone of family and friends to begin to figure out who you are, and how you interact with the wider world. Think of the young lion taking its first steps outside the pride: he is experiencing the world in a new way. He will encounter strange situations, disobey his elders, and still be sure he can conquer them. He will make mistakes along the way and suffer setbacks. He will learn from experience. And he will come back prepared to lead.
Our teens are not exploring the wilds of the jungle, but they venturing into strange, new mental and emotional territory, even within the safety of a school. It is part of growing into a greater maturity.
The steps we can take to take advantage of this turn on the path towards adulthood are equally important: designing school environments to encourage collaboration, celebrating participation in sports and volunteer opportunities, and setting up structures that force them to hit the “pause” button before acting on impulse can all be positive ways to construct an invisible safety net and strengthen their development.
So when they seem to disregard instruction, pay more attention to peers than parents, and make decisions we worry may lead them down the wrong path, they are not “acting out” against us. They are in the thicket of adolescent brain development, and will be there for awhile.
Sometimes, the best thing we can do is set up rules, repeat these six times, offer advice when asked, stay connected, and make sure they do as little harm as possible. And be patient: they will come eventually be the stronger for the experience.
Robin Stevens Payes is a Maryland-based science writer, coach and consultant in social marketing specializing in health, science and education. She’s also the author of the new teen time travel adventure series, Edge of Yesterday.