If someone were to ask you to recall an outrageous or just plain dangerous thing that you did as a teenager, I can almost guarantee that you could remember at least one event that makes you cringe. Quite often, we look back on our youth and ask ourselves ‘why did I do THAT?’ or wonder how it is possible that we are even alive to tell the tale. Memories of driving at 106 mph down the motorway just to see how far you could push the engine may spring to mind as you try to tell your own teenagers to wear a seatbelt while they roll their eyes at you for being an over protective worry wort.
Risky Behaviours in Teens
The teenage years and early 20’s remain the time in a person’s life when they take the most risks. Hospitalisation rates after road traffic accidents are at their highest level among 15-19 year olds of both genders and deaths due to transportation accidents occur in a much higher proportion in people of this age group (31% of all deaths), compared with just 1% of those aged 25 and over.
Teens are also more likely to be the victims of violence and the majority of teen assault victims report that the perpetrator had been drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs. In over a third of cases (34%), those subjected to the violence had also been drinking or using drugs.
They are more likely than other groups to smoke cigarettes, binge drink, have casual sexual partners and become involved in criminal activity.
The ability of the teen to exercise inhibition and his or her ability to weigh decisions and consequences and to judge people’s characters will undoubtedly have an impact on how many risky behaviours they engage in. Peer pressure from other young people plays a role as psychology and brain development research has found that when a teenager’s behaviour is observed by a peer, they will make more risky choices. Brain scans show enhanced activity in ‘reward’ regions of the brain. In other words, when their friends are around them they may take greater risks for the reward and social acceptance that it brings them.
Neuroscience Brings Better Understanding
We can all attest to having been to some drunken parties, to defying our parent’s curfew or trying a cigarette. The experiences that sometimes give youth a bad name are part and parcel of growing up and were previously thought of merely as the teenager’s attempt at spreading his wings and seeing what the boundaries were as he hovered between child and adulthood. While this is definitely part of the issue, it goes deeper than that. The teenage brain simply hasn’t finished developing and the parts of his brain that control inhibitions and decision making haven’t fully matured. That is why young people are generally more impulsive than the more measured older adults around them.
The age of adulthood is typically assumed to be 18 in many countries but advances in neuroscience over the last 15 years have led researchers and parents alike to question whether an 18 year old is an adult. The premise that the human brain is fully matured by this age was based on assumption. Due to MRI imaging, scientists realised that the frontal lobes – responsible for planning and impulse control – are one of the last areas of the brain to mature and may not in fact be fully developed until half way through the third decade of life. Simply put, a person doesn’t have the entire capacity to control his impulses until he is around 25. This revelation has ignited controversy in the criminal law system of countries such as the US over whether the death penalty, or indeed life imprisonment should be applied to youth.
Mentoring Reduces Risk Taking Behaviour
Bad decisions made by teens can cause family strife and spoil potential. This is where mentoring can help. Mentoring programmes bring teenagers and adults together so that teenagers have someone to go to when they need advice. Mentors also provide companionship and direction in academic studies. The teenage years can be a lonely and confusing time, even if the person has lots of friends. Puberty, family problems or pressure at school can make life miserable but when a young person has an impartial adult they can go to for guidance, it can make all the difference. Adolescents who have an adult mentor engage in less risk taking behaviour than those who do not. They are less likely to have sex with more than one partner, less likely to smoke lots of cigarettes every day or take illegal drugs and less likely to carry weapons. Mentors aren’t always trained counsellors or teachers. They can also be trusted family members, good friends or even clergy, so if you’re the parent of a teen and you would like to have a better relationship with them and keep them out of harm’s way, you too can learn how to be their mentor.
The more support a young person has, the less impulsive behaviour they will indulge in so having a nurturing adult’s guidance in a non-judgemental environment is important for the mental health and happiness of every teen.
JAMA Pediatrics, accessed August 23, 2014, http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=348966
Journal of Adolescent Health, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678/
Teen Brains on Trial, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.phschool.com/science/science_news/articles/teen_brains_trial.html
The Journal of Neuroscience, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/30/10937.full
Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Chapter5002008
Developmental Science, accessed August 23, 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3075496/
Contributed by Emma Barnes, August 2014