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Yes, Teens’ Brains Make Them Do Dumb Crap — But There’s Hope

Oy. You’ve probably — like us — read the anxiety-provoking studies that suggest that the adrenaline-junkie chunk of our teens’ brains smashes their rational control systems LIKE HULK.

Meaning, of course, that the teenage reputation for being reckless has a basis in science. Which, of course, is not information we should let them get their hands on: “Mom, I crashed both of the family cars, but it was totally science, I couldn’t help it.”

Yes, our once-babes may be at the mercy of their thrill-seeking, roller-coaster synapses firing messages like, “Who needs a condom, just this once?” and “I’ll just get one selfie from the top of the Chrysler Building and it will be so lit.
But new research targeting more than 5,000 teens from 11 countries suggests that — despite having the same damn impulsive, risk-flirting brains — young adults around the world behave very differently and show very different levels of self-control.

The study’s lead author is a professor of psychology at Temple University, Dr. Laurence Steinberg. Steinberg said in the journal Developmental Science that “the context in which kids grow up must matter a great deal, and that adolescent recklessness isn’t the inevitable byproduct of the period’s biology.”

Whew, that’s a relief, right? Well, no, not so much if you are raising a teenager in, say, the United States as opposed to somewhere in Indonesia. Sorry. Somebody had to break it to you.

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To give you an idea: Only 2 percent of Indonesian teenagers surveyed reported sampling alcohol in the past month. But those wild Argentinian hooligans? Half of them reported downing alcohol in the past 30 days. Gulp. We’re guessing our U.S. teens would rather party with the Argentinian teens. And Steinberg’s study supports our hunch.

“Even in China we are finding that adolescents are at a time of heightened sensation seeking,” Steinberg said, “but they don’t engage in the high rates of drug use, unprotected sex and recklessness that we see in America and Western Europe.” Gah. Lucky us.

Steinberg says it’s not a lost cause, though. He feels that the countries with the lowest rates of wild adolescent risk-taking “encourage self-control from a very early age and structure adolescence in a way that doesn’t give kids a lot of free, unstructured time to get into a lot of trouble.” 

Valerie Reyna — professor of psychology at Cornell University — has also studied this topic extensively. She’s found that teens can indeed be coached to think about their choices before acting. See, you can keep breathing. It’s all going to be OK.

Reyna said teens need frequent reminders of “clear rules for decision making…and adults who help convey the same message in different ways.” Reyna talks to adolescents about risk-taking in this way: “Don’t focus on whether you could get caught — you probably won’t. Focus on whether you could get hurt…. When the adults are around, we help to keep you safe. When we’re not around, staying safe is entirely your job.”

More: Six ways I’ve strengthened my relationship with my teens

So we don’t have to accept our teens’ penchant for risky business. Their brains are a tsunami, yes, but they’re still listening. Regular dinners at home with the family (and no phones in laps) might make a difference. Knowing where your kids are and insisting on curfews? That can’t hurt either. Talking to your kids about smart choices even when their hormones and neurotransmitters are telling them a night of bath salts (not the lavender-smelling kind) might be cool? Yup, research suggests talking about risk and self-control with your young adult can do a lot of good. Sure, you’ll sound like a total dork, but you do anyway.

And, “Honey, a man chewed off another man’s face after doing bath salts, just like on The Walking Dead, FYI” is kind of a cool fun fact for any teen pondering a really stupid choice of illicit substance use.

Another fun fact: Risk-seeking and thrill-craving in adolescents peaks around 19 years of age, while self-regulating behavior continues to grow and then level off around age 23 or 24. So it’s not too many years of sheer terror before things balance themselves out and they start wanting to talk to you about setting up 401(k) plans and travel insurance and all that boring adult stuff.

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