I Didn’t See That Coming

A few years back, an article in National Geographic caught my attention. In it, the author suggested teens actually “court risk” more than at any other time in life and view risk and reward differently than adults. Did you catch that? DIFFERENTLY than us!

What is key in understanding the way teens think and act is the knowledge that the risk vs. reward equation varies by situation and is dependent on who a teen is with. This is quite different than adults. Adults tend to weigh risk and reward the same regardless of who is witnessing the behavior.

This article went on to share studies conducted with teens driving in what the authors refer to as emotionally “cool” situations where no one else is present. In these situations, teens take risks at the same rate as adults. However, the situation changes when you add stakes the teen cares about. The studies (conducted on driving simulators) showed teens take twice as many risks when the teen’s friends are brought into the room to watch. The adults, meanwhile, drove no differently with a friend watching.

You can imagine what this means for alcohol or marijuana use and driving under the influence for teens. Between the ages of 15 and 25 more young people die from accidents of almost every kind than at any other stage of life. Most long-term drug and alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens.

Should we as parents, aunts, uncles, and friends simply close our eyes and hope this developmental period passes quickly and without harm? I wish that would work but the truth is, silence and ignorance are not friends of teens in need of a little direction until their brains are ready to take on the full job. And, the consequences are such that you never want to say, “I didn’t see that coming…”

If you are a caregiver for a teen or play an influential role we suggest you:

  • Frequently talk AND LISTEN to your teen share how things are going in their life.
  • Use public service announcements, stories on the news, TV plot lines, pop culture or current issues at school or in the community to spur on conversation.
  • Let your teen know you disapprove of any youth use of alcohol and marijuana.
  • Know the friends they will be with and what they will be doing. Make sure they have a plan to get home safely if something goes wrong.
  • Set a curfew and either be awake when they return home or have them wake you. If necessary, have an alarm set to wake you at curfew time to be sure they arrive home safely.

We can’t speed up brain development but we can put some safeties in place to help.


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