Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Why Do They Do That? Teenagers & Risky Behaviour – And Why Punishment Won’t Work

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It’s no secret that there are many intelligent, well-adjusted adolescents who have a self-preservation instinct so small, it could fit through the eye of a needle without any trouble at all. 

New research has brought together some of the world’s experts in an attempt to understand what drives the heightened level of risk taking that is so common during adolescence. It’s the same thing that drove us to do crazy stupid things. It’s all in our wiring. 

Why they do what they do – the research.

Researchers looked particularly at the risky behaviour of boys and conducted 19 studies across various research areas including psychology, neurochemistry, brain imaging, clinical neuroscience and neurobiology.

The studies revealed fascinating insights into the inner mechanics of a teenage boy’s brain:

  • Teenage boys showed greater activity in the area of the brain the controls emotions when confronted with threat. This was different to the response of children and adults and strikingly different to that of adult men.
  • Teenage boys were mostly impervious to the threat of punishment but showed heightened sensitivity to the possibility of large gains from gambling. This means that when they are faced with a decision, they are likely to understate the potential negatives and overstate the possible gains.
  • In light of this, we have to wonder about the effectiveness of punishment as a way to curb risky or antisocial behaviour in boys. Highlighting the gains to be made from safer or more prosocial behaviour would seem to be a more effective response.
  • A molecule that is critical for developing fear of risky situations is less active in adolescent male brains.

The behaviour of any teenager is complex. The important work for us lies in understanding what, how and why, so we can respond to them more effectively, and better position them to respond to their world.

This is important for all of us. As explained by researcher and neuroscientist Pradeep Bhide, ‘Such behaviours (risky behaviours) impact not only the teenagers who obviously put themselves at serious and lasting risk but also families and societies in general. The emotional and economic burdens of such behaviors are quite huge.’

It’s evolution. Here’s why it makes sense.

Thinking along evolutionary lines, the lack of fear that seems to come with adolescence and a Y chromosome, starts to make sense. Reduced fear in the face of threat and the courage that comes with that would have served the primitive tribe well. Similarly, a heightened sensitivity to the payoff from taking a gamble – such as putting his life on the line to feed or protect the tribe – makes sense in a time before grocery stores and deadlocks.

Fast forward to modern times and boys are genetically still primed to engage in risky behaviour and to get excited about the payoff from taking a risk, but generally the welfare of the tribe does not depend on it.

Depending on the context, courage and stupidity can look the same. The primitive environment has changed, the genetics haven’t.

In uncovering the neurobiological basis of behaviour, this study has highlighted the benefits to be gained from a more pro-active, rather than reactive response to our teenage boys.

There’s a really good reason they do what they do. They are experimenting with the world and their place in it. It’s one of their main jobs during adolescence. The growth and learning that comes from this is critical to them being able to leave the family and step into the world as healthy, well-adjusted, independent adults, but the need for this exploration and experimentation will sometimes lead them into risky situations.

What can we do?

When it comes to the move to adulthood they’ll have the wheel, but if they let us we can help them to steer. We can’t control them but we can influence them. The level of that influence will ultimately be up to them, so the relationship and the connection is critical. It’s more important than anything. 

Adolescence lasts until about age 24, so the massive brain changes that come with adolescence will keep driving their behaviour until then. You can’t punish an 18 year old. You can try, but it’s very likely that the more you push against them the more they’ll pull away from you.

Even in younger adolescents, punishment that shames will likely drive behaviour that avoids consequences, such as secrecy or lying. It won’t necessarily impart the values or understanding that is vital to create lasting change. For that to happen, they need to be open to our influence.

Influence won’t come from control and punishment. It will come by being the one who is easy to turn to and easy to listen to. That means being someone who doesn’t shame them for their mistakes or their risky moves, but by being the one who tries to understand them. It means listening more than we speak and giving them information not rules. Of course, we won’t always understand why they do what they do – they won’t either – but they need to know that we don’t judge them for doing it.

Shame (which is born from criticism, judgement, punishment) is an awful thing to feel and when there’s too much of it, a really normal response is to disown the shameful behaviour – ‘it’s not my fault’, ‘there’s nothing wrong with what I did,’ ‘you (adults/ parents) just don’t get it’, ‘everyone else is doing it so I can too.’

It’s really important to have boundaries but the consequences of overstepping those boundaries have to make sense and they have to be given with openness and explanation. The more we give them in terms of trust, respect, understanding and connection, the harder they’ll work to keep it. 

The best way to guide them towards being the person we want them to be is to treat them as though they already are.

Channelled in the right direction, risky decisions can become courageous ones and opportunities to expand the edge of their capabilities. The drive to take risks gives teens what they need to explore and experiment with the world. From this comes resilience, resourcefulness, creativity and ultimately, a well-adjusted, pretty amazing adult. (We just have to get them there!)

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8 Comments

Dr Hazel Harrison

What a great article. As a clinical psychologist working with teenagers I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can support their risk taking and find ways to enable them to take risks that don’t have fatal endings. You’ve started an important conversation.

Reply
C thrasher

This article resonates truth for me. That labeling the risk taking as bad doesn’t remove the desire but forces it into dark places and materializes as a negative in kids lives. Those kids who are going to strongly resist are potentially our boundary pushers for society. Fearless and brave. Our responsibility as adults seems to be to provide a positive direction for this needed exploration. It’s risky to get on stage and perform. It’s risky to enter into a formal debate. It’s risky to open a micro business, join an advisory board, climb a cliff face etc.

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carmel Miedziolka

is there any similar research for teenage girls? I have 3 teenagers and keen t understand more..

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You still have to watch out for the same issues. For girls, it might look like experimentation with drugs and alcohol, risky sexual behaviour. The idea is to support them when you can in helping them find safe ways to take risks or to experiment with novelty. The drive for novelty is a great thing about adolescence as it can make them dynamic and creative and it can lead them to find their passions.

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Fiona

This is a great article!

I have boy/girl twins of 14 and a 12 year old girl too. They are all wonderful characters and started pushing the boundaries very early on!

With this in mind, and also not wanting them to hang around on the street, I signed all three of them up to Sea Cadets, my son is in Marine Cadet and loves getting muddy and going out into the field. The girls love the water bourne activities that the Sea Cadets gives them.

I feel that it has given them the chance to do risky activities whilst being supervised by trained professionals. They are also able to ‘be themselves’, which enables them to grow at their own pace. They also have peers who are like-minded, which helps too.

I have faith that our core family values will remain true to them and that they will be well rounded adults, but I am still not looking forward to the adolescent years!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Fiona what a great way to channel their tendency towards risky behaviour! It’s so important that you have given them core values to set their internal compass to. It will give them something to refer to when things get confusing. The teen years are certainly an adventure! Sounds as though they are in wonderful hands.

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