If you’ve ever said, “What were you thinking?!” to a teen, you’re not alone! Luckily, a basic understanding of teen brain development can help us as adults understand why teens behave the way they do, even if we’re not neuroscientists. And this understanding is crucial to guiding teens towards safe, healthy exploration and away from harmful risks like vaping. It might sound crazy, but it’s true: Our teens need to take risks as a part of their normal growth and development!
Why Our Teens Take Risks
As our teens grow up, the impulsive, risk-taking, and emotional center of the brain (the limbic system) and the logical, planning, and reasoning part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) are in a race to the developmental finish line. The emotional system crosses first, leaving the reasoning and thinking portion of the brain to catch up. This makes the teen brain like a car with the gas pedal to the floor and no brakes: The limbic system is well-developed, acting as a powerful accelerator encouraging teens to take risks, act on impulses, and seek new experiences. But the prefrontal cortex is still in development, making teens less likely to stop and think things through, modify their behavior, or fully consider the consequences of their actions. The good news is that the prefrontal cortex does catch up later in life, closer to the age of 25 when our brains finish developing into adult brains.
Dr. Adriana Galván, an expert on adolescent brain development who runs the Developmental Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, found in her research that teens learn faster – and with better accuracy – than adults because of teens’ very active striatum – the reward center of the brain. This reward center is most active in the teen years and it’s very sensitive to rewards, enabling teens to learn new things much more quickly than adults, like learning a new language or how to play an instrument. And this makes sense for this time in life, right? The teen years are full of amazing learning and growth, about ourselves and the world around us! But Dr. Galván’s lab also found that teens with a more active reward center are more likely to take risks and to like it. This can spell trouble for teens if their risk-seeking brain is introduced to vaping (or other drug use). Dr. Galván poses this question in a great short video about the teen brain:
“Rather than ask how you keep your teenager from taking risks – because we know the brain is really oriented toward risk at this time – it’s better to ask, how do I provide opportunities for healthy risks?”
How We Can Help Our Teens Take Safe Risks
Now, with our teens’ remarkable brains driving their learning and exploration, we get to step in and guide them towards things that scratch their risk-taking itch, but prevent negative consequences to their health and safety. Safe risk-taking doesn’t put your child in danger, but it does require them to risk something — like failure or criticism. And there are great benefits to taking safe risks! Safe risk-taking can boost our teens’ confidence, leadership skills, planning skills, and can help them learn to resist their impulses – all important skills to learn and practice for adulthood! Here’s how you can start supporting teens in identifying and taking safe risks:
- Talk to teens about their interests, passions, and their favorite things to do. Ask questions about what makes them happiest, what’s the most exciting thing they’ve ever done or can imagine doing, or what would they do if they had a whole day to do whatever they wanted. You can really think outside the box here! Do they enjoy sports? Does art excite them? Are they interested in music? Do they enjoy helping people or animals? These conversations will help you connect with your teen and also point you both in the right direction for your next step.
- Help teens brainstorm some opportunities or challenges around their interests. For example, if your tween loves basketball, encourage them to try out for the team. If your teen enjoys painting, encourage them to enter a local art competition or display at their school. If they’re interested in music, maybe they can try out for the band this year, or audition for first chair if they’re already in band. If they love animals, challenge them to volunteer at an animal shelter weekly. If they have an interest in movies or TV, encourage them to try out for the school play, even if they’ve never acted before. There are so many possibilities! See what your child gravitates toward, then help them make a plan to get started!
- Set teens up for success by supporting their needs where you can. Help your tween or teen think through what they’ll need to do this activity and ask them how you can support them. What equipment, tools, or materials might they need? How will they get to and from their activity? Who might they need to contact in order to get started? Whether it’s a ride to practice, an opportunity to shadow someone, or helping them buy materials, try to support them as best you can. Remember: Showing up to cheer them on or being a shoulder to lean on is free!
It’s important to note that we’re guiding and supporting our kids here. If they start to get off track, resist the urge to jump in and take over. If we give them too much help, it can negate the learning experience and their sense of control. Let them navigate through the process and follow up on how they’re feeling. If they are hesitant to try something new, you can talk about your own safe risk-taking successes and failures. Whatever the activity, our teens’ interest and passion will help drive teens to stick with it, even when things get tough. That being said, teens can change their interests as they explore the world and learn more about themselves. It’s okay if one of these ventures doesn’t pan out like they thought it would, there are always others to try!
To learn more about how we can help keep our kids safe from vaping (and all drug use) and prevent addiction, check out the rest of our website here at ParentUpKC.com!