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Teenagers Behaving Badly? A Closer Look at the Complex Drivers of Recklessness in Youth

by Dr. Lynn Margolies


Why are teens so vulnerable to dangerous risk-taking? New research says it's not what you think.

…Popular media has spread the idea that the reason adolescents are more reckless than other age groups is because they have not yet developed the brain (executive) functions to control their impulses. However, this does not explain why teens are more into risk and recklessness than younger kids - whose executive functions - e.g. capacity to control themselves - are even less developed than teens.

…New research indicates that what’s actually different in adolescents is that they are more sensitive to feel-good sensations or thrills than other age groups. So it’s not that they have less capacity for control - it’s that the temptation is way higher for them.

…Will power - resisting immediate gratification for future satisfaction - depends not only on how much effortful control we have and exert (a voluntary capacity) but how tempted we are (involuntary). We can all relate to this. For example, we may not have that much trouble resisting drinking but that may not be so true when it comes to ice cream or vice versa. Or we may be able to make ourselves exercise but not be able to control our anger.

…We must remember this when thinking about our kids and comparing them to other kids or ourselves. The intensity of kids’ impulses greatly impacts the temptation they feel - on top of the fact that kids have varying degrees of inherent capacity to pull back, transition between tasks, as well as keep abstract goals in mind - all of which affect discipline and self-control (executive functions). What’s easy for one child (or adult) is difficult for another - and cannot be achieved by sheer force of will alone.

These findings are relevant to how we help teens be safe and make good choices:

...Redirect teens’ need for intensity by encouraging risk-taking that is safe (e.g. allowing teens to make their own decisions about most things - with guidance - and not being over-protective).

...Help teens find intensity in activities that aren’t so dangerous (e.g. competitive sports).

...Teach self-awareness/reflection and mindfulness to help teens deal with intense feelings.

Duckworth, A. L., Steinberg, L. (2015). Unpacking Self-Control. Child Development Perspectives, 9(1), 32-37.

Relevant Articles:

Seduced by Risk and Danger: The Teenage Mindset - Part 1

Protecting Teens from Danger: Tips and Advice for Parents - Part 2

Does Your Teenager Want to Get Caught?

Teen Drinking: Limits vs. Punishment

Executive Function Problem or Just a Lazy Kid (Part 1)

Executive Function Problem or Just a Lazy Kid (Part 2)


To see other similar articles, click on the following links: Teen and College-Age Issues

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