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WHY TEENS TAKE RISKS AND HOW TO HELP THEM MAKE SAFE CHOICES

Although teens and young adults are encouraged to act independently in the academic, employment and social world, they are not biologically equipped to do so. The amygdala, the impulsive, “flight or fight” part of the brain is in control since the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for making well reasoned decisions is not mature until age 25. Consequently, their decisions are often irrational and flawed.
Teens and young adults are “sensation seekers” which means that they actively search out opportunities to have new and risky experiences. Add to this thrill-seeking component, the need for peer approval, the availability of unsupervised free time, the American emphasis on independence and the stage is set for poor decision making.
Teens and young adults spend most of their time in groups or cliques and the approval of peers directly correlates to feelings of positive self worth. Teens and young adults erroneously credit their peers with having a much more exciting life than they actually do. The belief that others are leading a much more exciting life spurs the adolescents and young adults to engage in more dangerous and risky activities than they would otherwise. Then their acts are used by other teens to ratchet up their excitement quotient.
Studies show that intelligence and academic success is no guarantee that teens will make well reasoned decisions. Self-efficacy is confidence in one’s self-worth and decision-making skills independent of the peer group. A confident and grounded teen may be able to reject an undesirable peer suggestion on a case by case basis by creating a safe way to fit in the group without expressly rejecting the choice of the peers. Going out with peers but volunteering to be the designated driver, or using humor or other diversionary tactics to maintain peer approval while avoiding the risky activity is more socially successful than avoiding the peer activity entirely.
Making the teen/young adult’s self-regulatory behavior more automatic and less dependent on individual self-determination maximizes the opportunity for good decision-making. In other cultures, self-control and delayed gratification skills are taught at an early age and practiced in daily life. If the safer course of action is ingrained in the teen’s mind, the opportunity for independent thought is reduced as is the opportunity for a poor outcome.
Finally, minimizing unstructured time also reduces the opportunity for engaging in risky activities. In other cultures, teens do not engage in as many risky activities because structured schedules leave little time for discretionary time.