Teens and Risky Behavior

Studies have linked risky behavior in teens to a variety of factors, including chemical imbalances, peer pressure, trauma, exposure to lead, too much protein and not enough carbohydrates, rejection by peers and television. Risky behavior has also long been identified with race and ethnicity and family income and structure. But in the fall 1998 issue of the Journal of American Psychology, neuropsychologist Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroimaging at McLean Hospital Brain Imaging Center, the psychiatric teaching hospital at Harvard University, linked risky behavior in teens to their underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare the emotional processing of healthy 10- to 18-year-olds with that of normal adults, researchers focused on the level of brain activity in the amygdala, a region that guides instinctual or “gut” reactions, and the   frontal  lobe, the seat of rationalization and reasoning. They found that “when young adolescents process emotion, the level of brain activity in the amygdala is higher than the activity in the  frontal  lobe. However, as adolescents progress into adulthood, there is an age-related shift: activation in the amygdala decreases while activity in the  frontal  lobe increases,” according to the study’s published results.

“These results suggest that adolescents are more prone to react with ‘gut instinct’ when they process emotions, but as they mature into early adulthood, they are able to temper their instinctive ‘gut reaction’ response with rational, reasoned responses,” says Yurgelun-Todd.

This gut instinct, combined with raging hormones, peer pressure and the stresses of life–especially in these times of terrorism and war–can equal some otherwise intelligent teens doing some stupid stuff, including experimentation with drugs and alcohol, self-injuring such as cutting, racing cars, playing chicken with traffic, unsafe sexual practices, acts of aggression or violence, petty crimes such as theft, etc.

And though in many ways, risk taking for teens is the norm–it is how they grow and develop and try new things–risk taking becomes a problem when it becomes a way of life. Robert W. Blum, MD, PhD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota found in the study, “Protecting teens: Beyond Race, Income and Family Structure,” part of the congressionally mandated Nationally Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, known as Add Health, that unhealthy behavior in teens was linked to “having close friends who drink or smoke or who are involved in weapon-related violence, having a friend who has attempted suicide and having problems with school work were linked to” substance abuse, weapon-related violence and suicidal thoughts and attempts (for white and Hispanic students, in particular).

Blum says, “Too many kids–rich and poor–are left to their own devices. Kids need structure to grow and to be healthy.” It is up to parents and educators and caring adults to provide that structure for teens and to help them make safe decisions.

Most teens’ risky behavior peaks between the hours of three and eight p.m., what some child psychologists have termed the “witching hour”. A report from the U.S. Attorney’s General’s Office states, “When we send millions of young people out on the streets after school with no responsible supervision or constructive activities, we reap a massive dose of juvenile crime.”

Other risky behaviors for teens, besides crime, that increase during the after school hours include tobacco usage, illegal drug usage, firearm “play”, drinking and drunk driving and sexual activity, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Some parents and health care professionals may think that religion keeps kids from risky behaviors, but researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that “adolescents who were more religious were healthier…Yet, in some cases, oddly, being religious actually increased a teen’s risky behavior…Adolescents with religious parents were more likely to report driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.” These teens were also less like to wear seatbelts. Researcher Grace O’Neill says, “Logic would say this is backward–but religious people tend to believe, ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to die.”

So what can parents do to help their risk-taking teens, especially during this time of high stress from terrorism, war, crime increases, etc.? University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers suggest parents start by working with issues that are less controversial and threatening, to provide teens with relatively safe opportunities to practice their decision-making skills. For example, let your teen determine which after-school activities to participate in. This way your teen gets to make a decision for himself and also finds something positive to occupy his time during some of the “witching hours”. Other “safe” decisions you may permit your child to make include hair color, number of earrings, etc.–things that aren’t life-threatening and can be easily changed. By starting with smaller decisions that allow your teen to develop his sense of self as well as his decision-making skills, you are helping him build positive lifelong learning patterns.

Like in some many other areas of your teen’s life, open and nonjudgmental communication can be the key to limiting risky behavior, both in the frequency of occurrence and in the scope (amount of danger) of the behavior. Most of life is about taking risks; it is how we grow, develop, explore and learn. By maintaining a positive family environment and by modeling positive risk-taking, we can help our teens through this risk-taking, prefrontal cortex developmental time.