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

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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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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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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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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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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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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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