Adolescent Brains Present a Huge Parenting Challenge

Dr. Neill Neill

group of young teensTeens indulge in more high-risk behavior in general than adults do. Understanding why teens take big risks is a key to good [tag-tec]parenting[/tag-tec]. Your job as a parent isn’t over when they are seventeen, no matter how much they protest they are adults. Good [tag-cat]parenting[/tag-cat] sometimes is a matter of life or death with adolescents.

Every day we hear of middle-of-the-night automobile accidents due to speed alcohol and fatigue with young drivers. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds account for disproportionately more fatal automobile accidents than do adults. Almost by definition young drivers have less experience driving than older drivers, but that does not make them bad drivers.

On the contrary, many of our young drivers are very competent. They have gone through recent driver education. They have deliberately practiced and honed their driving skills. They stop at stop signs. They show courtesy to other drivers. They signal to turn or change lanes. They have not yet slipped into the sloppy driving habits of many of their elders.

High-risk behavior among teens is not a question of education. We do a good job of making sure our young people are equipped with knowledge, not just about driving safety, but about many high-risk activities. They know about

  • the risks of using various types of drugs
  • the effects of alcohol on judgment
  • hypothermia and heat exhaustion
  • how exposure to loud sounds can lead to impaired hearing
  • the risks of unprotected sex
  • the dangers of hitchhiking

So why do the kids take these risks in spite of their good intentions to use what they know?

An article in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science provides us with some clues. The clues come from brain research. Over the past decade a great deal of research has been done on brain development.

An adolescent brain is far from fully developed. Full [tag-ice]brain development[/tag-ice] is reached somewhere beyond the age of 18, at least as far as the issue of high-risk behavior is concerned. (Some researchers have suggested that brain development continues until the late 20s.)

Research with brain imaging technology shows that before the age of eighteen or nineteen the area of the brain that regulating impulse and emotions is not yet fully developed. The brain system that regulates logic and reasoning develops much earlier. What this means is that teenagers may have a full intellectual understanding of risk and they may have every intention of avoiding a particular high-risk activities, but they don’t have the full capacity to control themselves.

Teens are highly susceptible to peer pressure. Some research has shown that even "the mere physical presence of peers increases the likelihood of teens taking risks."

Up until the advent of brain imaging technology, we as a society have put a great deal of emphasis on dealing with teenage high-risk behavior through education. Now we are beginning to realize that no matter how much education we provide, we must do more. If the teens cannot control themselves and avoid risky behavior because their brains are not mature enough, some of the controlling must be handled by the adults.

One researcher, psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University says "We need to rethink our whole approach to preventing teen risk." He advocates curbing risky behavior by, among other things, raising the minimum driving age and strongly enforcing underage drinking laws. The kids will acquire the necessary "neurological brakes" only as their brains continue to mature.

Steinberg goes on to argue that our teens really need more parental supervision and control to guide them through that very high-risk time of life.

As I write this I cannot help but wonder how alcohol and marijuana use affects the development of the brain. Does the presence of alcohol and/or THC in the sixteen-year-old brain retard the development of the neurological brakes beyond the age of 18 or 19? Future research may give us some answers.

Psychologist Dr. Neill Neill maintains an active practice on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. He focuses on healthy relationships and life after addictions. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic – A Woman’s Survival Guide.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

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