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

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!)

[irp posts=”1589″ name=”What Your Teens Need You To Know”]

11 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 https://www.heysigmund.com/tag/marijuana/ and how to talk to teens about drugs https://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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sara

great and informative articles.( I am from pakistan) and working on female adolescence problems having a daughter of 4 years and serving as a single parent.

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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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