Raising Teens is Risky Business

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A Review of Dr. Jess Shatkin’s: Born to be Wild: Why teens take risks and how to keep them safe


We think we’ve got our kids figured out… and then they become teenagers. We want what’s best for them. We want them to learn the values of hard work, to get good grades, and for them to come into adulthood prepared for life outside of our home. The truth of the matter is, once they reach 18 or so, a lot of their decision making is in their hands, but research is showing that even though adolescence begins around the time of puberty, it extends long into the mid-20s. During these years, adolescents tend to make some rather risky choices like drinking, dangerous driving, experimenting with drugs, and unsafe sex. These risky behaviors can result in some pretty severe consequences such as car accidents, addiction, depression, teenage pregnancy and suicide. I found Jess Shatkin’s book, Born to Be Wild, to be incredibly helpful in better understanding why teenagers take risks. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor at NYU, Shatkin knows his stuff. All of his points are backed by research as well as personal experience and case studies. 

Statistics show that one in five high school students participated in binge drinking in the last 14 days, one in ten high school students admits to driving under the influence of alcohol in the past 30 days. Almost half say they text while driving. So why do adolescents take risks and make decisions that leave many of us adults spinning, wondering “What on earth were you thinking?” Shatkin meets this question head on with research that explains that teens are actually thinking, but their brains are not fully developed to come to the conclusions on risky choices like most adults do. Our brains develop their connections from the back of the brain to the front. The first part of the brain to develop is the limbic system, which is “the emotional center.” This is the part of the brain that is responsible for our feelings and emotions that we exhibit and respond with - things like, “joy, love, anxiety, embarrassment, anger, aggression, envy, and sadness.” This part of the brain develops early in childhood, and it’s development is partially why we often experience teenagers exhibiting highly emotionally-driven and reward-seeking behavior. This part of the brain, the limbic system, leads a lot of their responses and accounts for their “high rates of risk-taking behavior.” 

The more forward part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex, otherwise known as “the brain’s CEO,” is in charge of planning, logic, and decision making. This part of the brain is present in teenagers, but will not fully develop it’s connections to the limbic system until their mid-20s. This explains why teenagers can give you “cold situational” responses upon request, (like it is obviously a terrible decision to drink and drive, or to text and drive, or cheat on a test), but can lack the same thought process in an emotionally intense moment where it is needed the most. In the mind of an adolescent, the pleasure seeking, reward driven, emotional limbic system is driving their responses and decisions. It also doesn’t help that the brain chemical, “dopamine,” which tells us what is pleasurable, is increased the most during adolescence. The increased dopamine level drives teens to be more likely to take risks due to the chance of experiencing more pleasure.  So all of these factors: the underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, that hasn’t completed its connections to the limbic system, the increase in dopamine, their emotions and desire to seek pleasure, all play into why adolescents between 12 and 26 are at high risk for risky behavior. So what are we to do about this? How are we to keep our kids safe?

For most adults, with our more fully developed brains, our choices that involve risk are made quite differently. Most of the time, any risk at all, no matter the likelihood, outweighs the reward. This is why we wear a seatbelt every time we get into the car. Because even though the risk of an accident is quite low, having a more comfortable ride is not worth the risk. Dr. Shatkin calls this adult line of thinking “getting to the gist,” where risk is assessed in more absolute terms (ex. “it only takes once to get hurt” or “no risk is better than some risk”). Teenagers think in more quantitative or relative terms, (ex. “less risk is better than more risk”); they are more likely to weigh out the decision’s pros and cons, and then justify a bad or risky decision. For example, a teen knows and can verbalize that unprotected sex can result in pregnancy and STI’s, but they may still make the choice to engage in unprotected sex because the momentary reward of increased pleasure drives their choice despite the potential consequences. So when we ask “What were you thinking?” after they have made a poor decision, research has shown that they were actually thinking. In their mind they were weighing out the pro’s and con’s, but made the wrong choice because their brain is wired to take the path that offers the most reward or pleasure. They are more likely to rationalize the risky behavior because of it’s rewards. 

Research shows that they know the risks, they are well aware of them. We need to help our kids learn how to make decisions based off of “gist” instead of rewards and consequences. We have to teach them that “no risk at all is better than some risk,” and “it only takes once to get hurt,” no matter the likelihood. Shatkin says, “Our goal must not be to simply stuff more and more knowledge about risky behaviors into our adolescents’ heads. Rather, our goal must be to help our adolescents simplify and integrate what we teach them into an overall meaning–a global understanding that will keep them safe” (Chapter 7).


So What Can We Do About it?

Dr. Shatkin outlines in chapter 8 what parents can do to reduce risk taking:


- Practice “Just right” parenting -  Find the appropriate balance between warm and involved, and firm and consistent in establishing guidelines and limits. Choose to be authoritative, not too permissive, or too authoritarian. 

  • Limit Screen Time- Research has shown that heavy screen time and video game users can contribute to reductions in the development of the parts of the brain that helps to process and regulate emotion and decision making. Have your kids “check-in” their phones before homework, and at night time. Have zones of “off-limits” in the house. They may not thank you now, but they will thank you later.

  • Behavioral Parent Training or “Parent Management Training” (PMT). Learn about this style of parenting that brings about good judgement and better behavior our of our children.

    • There are numerous resources available on this particular evidence based method that is built on positive reinforcement, effective commands, selective ignoring, scheduling, rewarding good behavior, and limits and consequences. 

  • Being there-  The more we know about our children, the fewer risks they tend to take, and we can offer them positive reminders. Not surprisingly, the more we know about our children, the fewer risks they tend to take. Conversely, the less we know about our kids’ whereabouts, activities, and friends, the more they tend to be involved with risky behavior”

  • Providing safe “risky” behavior and giving them lots of practice on making good decisions in risky situations. 

    • Practice with giving them analogies that help frame decision making in terms of gist or the bigger picture. 

    • Focus your “gist practice” on more absolute terms. (remember: “no risk at all is better than some risk,” and “it only takes once to get hurt,” "any risk is not worth it”)

    • Coach them through actual situations to have them develop a personal attachment to the decision instead of it being simply an abstract thought. Asking questions that make them think through things like: If you were to drive drunk what would happen if you’re pulled over by a police officer? How long would it be before you could drive again? What would that do to your performance in the school play next week and prom in May?

    • Model good behavior and help them plan responses before they find themselves in the situations in the first place. It is inevitable that they are going to come across alcohol, drugs, sexual situations etc. We can help them plan their responses, and offer them judgement free ways out, such as encouraging adolescents to call parents for a safe ride home if they happen to drink or use drugs - with a guarantee that the parents won’t explode with anger, but that they will talk about it the next day and possibly apply consequences. 


So in conclusion, this was a very helpful book that I plan on holding onto for reference long into the future. Dr. Shatkin’s research and applications for home, school, and community are simple, thought out, and practical to help us keep our kids safe. I challenge you to pick up this book and give it a try. You’ll be thankful you did. 

Referenced Review by: Christina Mimms for structure and points. https://www.sais.org/news/416820/Book-Review-of-Born-to-Be-Wild-by-Dr.-Jess-P.-Shatkin.htm

Gavin Spell, Minster to Youth

Gavin Spell, Minster to Youth

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