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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10 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.

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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..

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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!

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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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cindy

My daughter is a beautiful smart sassy 14 year old. Freshman in high school. On the cheer team. She’s been cheering since she was 9. She loves it. Loves life and her friends are number one for her. She’s never gotten in trouble before, but at the end of Jan she decided to present us with an opportunity to put our big girl/boy panties on and buck up and step up to the occasion. We got the trifecta. All in one day, her and her 2 girlfriends decided to ditch 6th period, go to Macy’s and they got caught shoplifting makeup. then later that evening I found out that she experimented with smoking weed. She told she has tried it various times and that shes not sure why she did it she just did and was curious about it and did it when her girlfriends would offer it to her. I know her first time smoking was in December because I broke into her Snapchat and she had a video in there where one of the girls is telling her exactly how to inhale and smoke it and then my daughter coughed it all out and said was that the right way to do it? Her last time smoking was at the end of Jan. She said it wasn’t on a daily basis but it was more than just experimenting. The two girls who got caught shoplifting with her got a 3 week grounding, but still could go places. We grounded my daughter for 2 months, she had to work to earn the money to pay Macy’s back for the fine and cant go anywhere until her grades come up and she uses this free time to catch up on life, studies and things like keeping her room clean, doing her laundry, etc. We took her social media away, which was devastating to her, but we still gave her her snapchat because that was her lifeline. We took Instagram away because the kids have an account called a SPAM acct. where they post whatever and anything they don’t want family to see. My daughter has one and there were some inappropriate posts, so we took it away until her grounding is up and in the meantime having conversations about the right way to use Instagram what to post what not to post and asking her to follow the guidelines and she can have her Instagram back. Gave her information again about predators, posting pics of her room, of her friends posting pics of them with weed how they could get in huge trouble as well as she can. Not to let her friends post inappropriate pics with her in them, foul language in the comments. She’s doing the best she can. She’s following through with a lot of things and she is learning a lot about her experience. Brave girl I tell you! Anyways, her two best friends smoke which I recently found out about when this all happened. I found some more photos of the girls today on my daughter’s Snapchat from January of the girls smoking. It’s all said and done now and my daughter says that she doesn’t smoke at all now and it was just a phase she went through. She says that she doesn’t want to go down that road and wants better for herself. She said that she’ll walk away if her friends start to smoke or offer it to her. She promised that if I let her keep her friends because they are very important to her, that she wont’ follow in their footsteps, that she’ll say no and walk away if they bring out the weed. I said okay. But I am so torn and I want to trust her but she keeps hopping on Instagram changing the password whenever I change it and not telling me. And of course when I ask her about it she says her friends log in it for her. I know she gets on it because it was very important to her and she wont tell me because of my reaction and she doest want to disappoint me because I have called her on it a few times already. I don’t want my daughter getting caught up in going down a bad road with these girls. They are wonderful girls good girls smart and sassy like mine is and also on the cheer team. I know their moms. It hurts my heart to see those past photos of these beautiful amazing strong girls smoking. My daughter doesn’t want me to tell their moms but I feel like I have to. First of all for my daughter, because first and foremost if I’m going to let her still have them as friends, they need to be clean or I’m putting my daughter’s well being in jeopardy; and secondly, I don’t want anything to happen to her friends. I want them to be safe and not smoke and go down that bad road. They’re too good. I feel like I have to tell them, I just don’t know how because I do want to keep my anonymity from the girls or else all my investigative work goes out the window and us mothers won’t be able to continue to monitor behind the scenes and step in when we need to. I’m thinking I can tell the moms about their daughters, but ask them to keep it hush hush about the way they found out this information. What are your thoughts? I love my daughter so much and want to protect her, but this is her journey and what she’s experiencing is sort of a right of passage for her. She’s learning a lot about doing the right thing for the herself more, not because we grounded her, but because we’re trying to guide her on her new path and empower her to really want to do the right thing for herself as much as her teenage brain can. She’s a great kid. Im in awe at how she looks at life with boundless energy and challenges everything presented to her unapologetically. She stands up for what she believes in and is so loyal to the people she cares about and I love that about her. I love her sassy way and her back talk when she feels strongly about something. I know that in a few years she’ll learn how better navigate all that sassy talk and it will serve to benefit her when she gets older for sure.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Cindy it sounds as though you are handling this beautifully with your daughter, and being the mother she needs you to be – strong, clear, firm, warm and responsive to what she needs. It’s such a difficult one when you have information about other people’s kids that you understandably feel the need to share with their parents. I’m a big believer in your loyalty being to your own daughter first. She needs to know she can trust you with the information she’s giving you, otherwise you will stop getting the information you need to keep her safe and heading in the right direction.

If you need to, talk to your daughter about the importance of keeping her friends safe. Talk to her about the risks of using and let her know that you won’t speak to anyone unless she says it’s okay. At the same time, let her know that it’s important that she gives you as much information as she can – and that she can trust you with it – so at least someone is making sure things aren’t getting out of control. Let her know that if there is something you are worried about, you’ll talk to her about it and come to a decision about what to do together, whether this means talking to the other parents or something else. Let her know that it will be different if you find out things about her and her friends accidentally – if that happens it’s all bets off, so it’s in her interests to keep you in the loop. Here is an article about the risks of marijuana http://www.heysigmund.com/tag/marijuana/ and how to talk to teens about drugs http://www.heysigmund.com/teens-drugs-parents-need-know-conversation-response/. The most important thing is to let her know that you don’t judge her, that you understand, and that it means a lot that she listens to you and learns from the mistakes she makes.

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