This Is Why Even Smart Teens Do Dumb Things—and How to Keep Them SafeAs adults, we can't imagine how skateboarding off a roof or stealing quiz answers seems like a good idea, but teen brains see risk differently than adult brains do. Here's what you need to know if you want to protect them.
“Use your head! What in the world were you thinking?!
How many times have you shouted something like this at your adolescent child? Teens and young adults get into a lot of mischief, and in an effort to keep our kids safe, we parents certainly have our work cut out for us. (Helpful hint: Here are the things your teen wishes you knew.) Adolescents are surrounded by risk every day, and if you’re a parent, or a child and adolescent psychiatrist like me, you’ve got to ask yourself—what are the real hazards to our children’s health and safety? More than 15,000 teenagers die each year in the United States, and far more than one million die annually worldwide. When our teens are injured or die, it’s rarely due to the sorts of ailments we know to be killers, like heart disease and cancer. Rather, teens in both the U.S. and abroad die largely because of accidental injury, suicide, and homicide, all of which occur because of the emotions they feel, the behaviors they engage in, and the thoughts they have. Discover these apps for keeping your kids safe online. Teen risks by the numbersFor example, nearly 90 percent of high school students rarely or never wear a bicycle helmet, and nearly one-third rarely or never wear a motorcycle helmet. Almost half of teens text or e-mail while driving, while 1 in 10 high school students drives under the influence of alcohol each month, and more than 1 in 5 rides with a friend who has been drinking. An unfathomable 1 in 10 female high school students has been forced to have sexual intercourse, and 1 in 4 adolescent girls becomes infected with a sexually transmitted disease every year—and STDs are on the rise. Meanwhile, 3 in 10 teen girls becomes pregnant, including a whopping 51 percent of Latina teens.
Almost half a million people die each year in the United States because of tobacco, making it our nation’s greatest cause of preventable death, far deadlier than obesity, alcohol, or motor vehicle accidents. Almost half a million--are you kidding me?! Given that nicotine is the most habit-forming substance available to kids and that over 30 percent of people who try tobacco will become addicted, you would think we’d be more effective at stopping teens from getting started with tobacco. Yet nearly 1 in 6 high school students is a regular smoker. Billions of dollars are spent each year on health care and lost work time due to tobacco, and yet regular tobacco use virtually always starts during the teen years. (This may be the best way to quit smoking.)
Given all of these home-grown threats and risks that our adolescents face daily, it’s no wonder that one-third of high school students feel sad or hopeless each year, nearly 1 in 5 seriously considers suicide, 1 in 7 has made a suicide plan, and 1 in 12 has attempted suicide. Chronic mental illness too skyrockets during the adolescent years with half of all lifetime mental illness setting on by age 14 and three-quarters by age 24.
How the teen brain sees risk differentlyThese numbers spell trouble, and parents, teachers, clinicians, and policymakers know it. Frightened that our kids may be exposed to dangerous drugs, unlimited sexual opportunities, and hazardous situations, we try to convince them that they are at great risk. We mistakenly believe that if they could only think logically like we do, they would see the dangers looming and change their behavior. But the reality is that entirely different mechanisms are at work in the adult and adolescent brain when it comes to assessing risk. In other words, no matter how much we scare adolescents with our statistics and pleading, it won’t stop them from taking risks. Most of our best-known risk reduction programs, in fact, like D.A.R.E., Scared Straight, and zero tolerance policies in schools, generally don’t work and often make things worse because they focus on telling kids over and over again that they are at risk. But our kids already know that driving drunk and having unprotected sex is dangerous—just ask them.
Counterintuitively, adults make decisions involving risk with the least amount of information possible. Mature decision-makers use intuition and experience, not large amounts of objective data. They don’t weigh pros and cons when staring down a risk because they know that the benefits of jumping off of a bridge into a river or driving 100 miles an hour on the freeway are minimal at best. In the mind of a grown-up, there’s no discussion or debate to be had when it comes to these kinds of risks. Our brains are built to allow conscious cognitive control over our emotions. (Here are some tips to making better decisions.)
But to a teenager or young adult, reward trumps all. Peak levels of dopamine drive adolescents to seek out new experiences and feelings. Eons of evolution have honed their brains into risk-taking machines designed to make them the most attractive and successful mates. Hormones tune them into the social zeitgeist, leading them to strive for a prominent place in the social hierarchy. Peer admiration is paramount, and the pain of being left out is both emotional and physical, and nearly intolerable. Emotional pain due to things like not being invited to a party or having your photo tagged on Facebook is so real to our teens that it can even be relieved with Tylenol. Because we’ve misunderstood the adolescent brain and how young people make decisions, we’ve been going about addressing risk all wrong. But with all that we now know, there’s so much we can do right.
How parents can manage teen risk-takingWe must start by doing a better job of supporting parents by teaching them to parent authoritatively and giving them the evidence-based skills of behavioral parent management (which include things like how to give effective commands, use positive reinforcement, and selectively ignore unwanted behaviors). Parents who learn these skills when their children are young raise kids who perform better on every academic and psychological health metric studied. These teens earn better grades, experience less anxiety and depression, have higher self-esteem, are more socially competent, and are less likely to engage in antisocial behaviors like fighting, lying, stealing, damaging property, and using drugs and alcohol. (Here’s how to raise emotionally intelligent children.)
We must also remember to focus on reward, not punishment when trying to motivate our kids. Because of the high amounts of dopamine circulating in our kids’ brains, novelty really rocks their world. So, we want to make the rewards our adolescents want (like driving and dating) contingent upon them doing the things that will improve their future, like getting their school work and chores done.
I’m sure you’ve asked yourself, probably countless times, why in the world you gave your child a smartphone at the tender age of way too young to have a super-computer in his pocket. All told, our teens now spend an average of between 9 and 11 hours each day on media. This is why I advise parents to put the phones and all portable screens into the fruit bowl or some other convenient place until homework is done. Unlimited screen access contributes to the epidemic of childhood obesity (more than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are now overweight or obese) and impacts our kids’ emotions, behavior, and brains. We parents need to remember that we own those devices and that using them is a privilege, not a right for our kids. How schools can manage teen risk-takingIn school, we would do well to teach our kids neuroscience, where they will discover that their brains are malleable and that they can enhance their resilience and willpower. And in addition to teaching them about the importance of exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep, we can actually help them get better at doing these things by providing more exercise opportunities, healthier school meals, and later school start times. Starting high school at 9 a.m. and extending the day to 5 p.m. will allow for enhanced tutoring for the kids who need it, mentoring, and expanded extracurricular activities in both sports and arts. It will also allow us to supervise our teens for more hours of the day, as they learn important life skills, instead of spending more time hanging out at the mall. Furthermore, we can teach our kids media literacy so that they don’t fall under the spell of a corporate America only too willing to sell them down the river by making them into nicotine or alcohol addicts.
We also have a big job to do by identifying and intervening early with those kids who are at the greatest risk for behavioral, emotional, and learning disabilities. Today, well over 20 percent of children meet criteria for a major psychiatric disorder by the time they reach 18 years of age. School is where our kids work, and it’s there that we should be providing mental health care. But fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s 80,000 public schools provide comprehensive mental health services. There are many other interventions that will also help us cut down on the risks our kids face and make the world a safer place for our children. Graduated drivers licensing reduces motor vehicle accidents, injuries, and deaths. More stringent controls on tobacco and alcohol advertising, along with raising the legal age of tobacco use to at least 21, will also help. Adolescent risk-taking scares the bejesus out of us and with good reason—it feels unpredictable and threatens those we love. The fallout all too often injures or kills our kids, deprives them of a college education, satisfying relationships, and a good job. But the strategies above, plus many others, will help our teens and young adults to make better, safer decisions and lead happier, more productive lives. We have the technology. We know all we need to know. We can and must make this happen.
Jess P. Shatkin, MD, MPH, is a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the NYU School of Medicine, and author of “Born to Be Wild – Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe.”
DOC HOLLYWOOD AT RISK: How to teach our kids to appreciate the gist of the risks they face In 1991, Michael J. Fox starred in the charming movie Doc Hollywood. The story tells of Benjamin Stone, M.D. (played by Fox), a young hotshot surgeon who’s driving across the country in his 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster. He plans on travelling from Washington, D.C. to Beverly Hills, where he’ll complete a fellowship with a high-end plastic surgeon.
Along the way, Dr. Stone crashes his car in the mythical rural village of Grady, South Carolina, “squash capital of the South.” The crash damages the fence of the town judge, who sentences Dr. Stone to provide medical services at the neighbourhood hospital, while the local mechanic awaits the parts to repair Stone’s vintage Porsche.
The hospital work in Grady is relaxed, compared to the busy emergency room in Washington, D.C., and Dr. Stone begrudgingly addresses the simple cases he encounters, like clearing the spots before an elderly patient’s eyes by cleaning her glasses. But, one day, he mistakenly diagnoses a bellyache as an urgent case of mitral valve regurgitation in a child who dipped into his father’s chewing tobacco and was given too much Bismuth subnitrate (homegrown antacid) to settle his stomach.
He calls a helicopter to take the child and his parents to the closest trauma hospital for emergency open-heart surgery before the aging Doc Hogue briefly steps out of retirement, cures the child with a 65-cent can of Coca-Cola, and puts the cocky Ben Stone in his place. Doc Hogue admonishes Ben Stone as a “snot nose puppy doctor,” who “probably wouldn’t know crap from Crisco.”
Experienced practitioners know what mattersIf you’re like most people, then you want the most experienced doctor—or mechanic, for that matter—when you have a problem. You want the specialist who’ll leave no stone unturned, no question unanswered and every possibility considered. But in contrast to what you might imagine, most experts, like Doc Hogue, cut to the chase. They don’t spend a lot of time pondering over irrelevant details, and based upon their experience and repeated practice, they usually know which details matter.
While Ben Stone is listening to the child’s heart, palpating his abdomen, examining his eyes, placing an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose, getting him on a stretcher, shouting at the nurse, advising the family and calling a helicopter to fly the boy to Atlanta for emergency surgery, Doc Hogue is popping open a can of Coke and heading back to bed.
So what does this have to do with kids?The story of Doc Hollywood has great relevance to adolescents and their risk-taking behaviour. Contrary to popular wisdom, adolescents (similar to the novice doctor, Ben Stone) generally overthink when faced with what seem like insurmountable problems and questions that they haven’t faced many times before:
Should I drive, now that I’ve had three beers?
Should I have sex with this person, even though I don’t have a condom?
Should I swim across the river like my friends, even though I’m not a strong swimmer?
Adolescents generally overthink when faced with what seem like insurmountable problems and questions that they haven’t faced many times before.
But adults, like Doc Hogue, get right to the point. Adults recognize the patterns and situations they’ve seen before, and don’t debate these risky decisions for long. They act.
Unfortunately, most of our adolescent risk reduction programs fail to appreciate this fact. Instead, even our most popular programs such as D.A.R.E., Scared Straight and school-based zero tolerance policies, focus on teaching our kids more and more detail about the risks they face: “Don’t you see that unprotected intercourse can cause pregnancy? That trying cigarettes can lead to addiction? That driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs can lead to a car accident?”
We hammer our kids with these facts and admonishments, but our finger-wagging only contributes to our kids’ natural tendency to overthink in risky situations. Instead of having hard and fast rules at their fingertips, like Doc Hogue, our kids tend to mull over lots of irrelevant details like Ben Stone. They think about everything under the sun when making a decision involving risk.
Benjamin Stone gets caught in a relatively common situation among those who’ve studied hard-to-learn complex skills and are just starting out in their careers. He has the hubris of the young, the zeal of the recently minted physician. At this point in his career, he’ll likely do better on a multiple-choice medical board exam than at any other time in his life.
He’s just like all the psychiatry residents I teach. He knows the facts and can rattle off countless possible diagnoses for any set of symptoms, and he does just that. However, he lacks maturity and experience, so in his efforts to be comprehensive, he misses what’s right in front of him. The competent but amateur physician, Dr. Stone, mistakenly sees too many possible explanations for the child’s symptoms, while the seasoned Doc Hogue accurately sees few.
Alternative ways to teach kids about risksThe good news is that we actually can teach our kids to appreciate the gist of the risks they face, which will help them stay safe in dangerous situations. We can do this in a number of ways:
By using analogies (“Would you play Russian Roulette for one million dollars?”)
By role-playing and letting them practice how to respond in risky situations
By helping them plan decisions in advance
By providing our kids with specific emotional cues to help them understand the possible outcomes of taking risks, with frequent reminders
By cuing them in to “red alert” situations, where risk is immanent (for instance, being home alone with your girlfriend)
By role modelling and explaining our logic when we’re faced with risky situations ourselves
With patience and lots of practice, we can enhance our kids’ ability to act safely, even before they gain Doc Hogue’s level of experience. And anyway, don’t worry too much about poor Ben Stone! In the end, he gets the girl.
I am reading the newly published book, “Born to be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Keep Them Safe”by Professor, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Pediatrics at NYU School of Medicine Jess Shatkin, MD. He was kind enough to agree to an interview, where we chat about the key take-aways from his book and most importantly, about what we can do to keep our teens safe. We touch on what inspired him to write about risk taking in adolescence, his research on decoding the adolescent brain and more specifically, we talk to Dr. Shatkin about his thoughts on challenging the idea of adolescent invicibility.
Dr. Shatkin, thank you so much for doing this interview. Of course, my pleasure, I am glad to be interviewed.Tell us, what inspired you to write “Born to be Wild”? The idea of risk taking has always interested me. Having been through my own experiences of risk taking and losing a friend to risky behavior in adolescence, I wanted to do something to prevent tragedies like this from happening on a societal level. I see a lot of that risky behavior in my practice as well.
Tell us about the myth of adolescent invincibility? It simply isn’t the case that adolescents think they are invincible. In fact, they overestimate the risk of something bad happening to them sometimes, 6 to 60 000 times the actual risk. My research shows that adolescents engage in risky behaviors despite knowing that they are vulnerable.
So why do adolescents take risks? There are a couple of reasons – one has to do with the evolution of the brain and the other has to do with hormones. One of the tasks of adolescence is to develop the emotional brain. Our kids are designed to take risks, their immune system is stronger than it will ever be, they can tolerate temperature differences better, pleasurable experiences feel better than they will ever again because of the high dopamine levels at this age. But, that’s when they are not the best decision makers; the cognitive component develops after.
That’s very interesting because I see people in my practice, who seem somewhat stuck in search of these euphoric experiences of adolescence. What do you think about that? Yes, that’s a good point. Adults recollecting on their experiences as adolescents have this emotional connection to the experience because the dopamine levels were higher at that age. We have to work harder as we age to find sources of pleasure that would feel as strongly as they felt in adolescence. But teens are genetically engineered to prioritize emotions over logic: they make risky choices for social acceptance and to avoid emotional pain. If a peer is watching, even a peer they don’t know, adolescents are more likely to take risks.
So what can parents do to help keep their teens safe? I talk about this in the book, and there are a lot of strategies we can do at home, in schools and as a society as a whole. At home, I call it Behavioral Parent Management, authoritative parenting. Start when the kids are young and be positive with your kids, utilize positive reinforcement as opposed to punishment. There are some cognitive strategies as well, which is the way we walk to our kids about risk. For example, earn these privileges so that you can do “x.” Role playing a risky scenario with them is helpful and trying to establish an emotional connection to the scenario. Kids tend to overthink challenging decisions but the emotional component prevails. Keep reinforcing that “Once is all it takes… to get pregnant, for example.”
What is the one thing that you would like your audience to take away from your book? A few things actually. #1. Adolescents don’t think they are invincible and engage in risky behaviors despite knowing that they are at risk. #2. There are good reasons why adolescents take risks and those go back to the evolution of the brain. And #3. There are strategies that we can use to keep our kids safe at home, in school and as a society.
All of this is in your book, correct? Yes, the book comes out in October, and you can find more about it at drjesspshatkin.com
What happened to that wonderful, even angelic child we knew before he or she turned teen? Did we do something wrong? Our child, relative, or student seemingly has lost good judgment, is drawn like a magnet to risk and trouble, places friends (good or not) above family, picks fights, and has to be told the same thing endless times with little effect other than to inspire our ire?
No, it is not us (with some exceptions). It is them—but not because they are bad, or mean to drive us mad. What they are doing, despite risk and admonition, is developmentally and psychologically age appropriate, even if hard to bear. Dr. Jess Shatkin, a nationally recognized child and adolescent psychiatrist, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, a popular SiriusXM radio host, and the father of two teenagers is our guide to understanding and success—or not—with teens.
Consider the risks: Binge drinking and substance abuse; unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy; texting when driving and sexting when not; and breaking the rules and breaking the law. Yet, as Dr. Shatkin so elegantly and clearly writes as a doctor and fine story-teller, adolescent brains are engineered to take risks. It is built into their DNA and development, it's nature's way (if dated) of producing the exploratory behaviors that are meant to advance the survival of the species. But boy, that's a hard one to swallow when you want to wring your child's neck. But we will be lost if we expect them to succeed on their own. Besides, how can we adults wait, hold our breaths—for as many as ten years—until their unmyelinated brains mature and can operate, hopefully, as adults?
It really helps to understand what is going on in their heads. First, understanding can quiet adult agitation, and second, it can foster strategies to help keep teens safe (and grownups sane). And Dr. Shatkin is a great teacher. From him, we learn about neuroscience, evolution, family dynamics, human and brain development, and the power of peer relations. As has been said, understanding is an essential element in being able to have empathy, patience, and even forgiveness.
But being an "understanding" parent, teacher, or relative is not enough. We need to avoid what does not work with teens and practice what does. We need to know how to navigate the minefield of adolescence. Adolescents, we learn, actually think about and appreciate risk. They are not as "invincible" in their own minds as we might imagine. In fact, as Dr. Shatkin illustrates, they tend to overestimate risk. But when it comes to their developing brains, their surging hormones and peer networks often prevail. Yet teens can learn to develop protective skills to contain impulses and not bend to social pressures.
Through Dr. Shatkin’s smart and engaging writing we also learn how we make decisions, as both youth and the not so young. He remarks, channeling countless parents, “What in the world were you thinking?” We are all prone to bias in our decisions, maybe having the facts but losing the meaning. However, we can learn—as can our youth. But not by trying to ‘police’ adolescents or exhort them with tales of any variety of negative consequences.
What is invaluable about this book is the material on what parents can do to reduce risk-taking. Dr. Shatkin shows us how effective praise can be; it is the necessary alternative to scolding and punishment. Families need to set reasonable rules and boundaries and stick to them when challenged, as they surely will be. And perhaps most importantly, families (other relatives and teachers too) need to 'be there' for adolescents, for them to have adults consistently in their lives, at dinner, on the weekend, and in the course of everyday life. Quantity counts, not just quality. Former President Obama had dinner at 6:30 with his wife and kids every day (when possible). That’s what commitment looks like, and it works.
Schools and teachers too can contribute to reducing adolescent risk. Youth need skills to be able to say no to their peers and to the many temptations they will encounter—from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and risky sexual encounters. Schools, we read, can do a lot to support healthy behaviors, to foster kindness and empathy, and to promote emotional self-regulation as well as “self-efficacy” (the capacity to be effective in relationships, school, and life). Mentorship matters as well.
More globally, Dr. Shatkin explains how powerful the media can be, and how important responsible media is to youth and their safe behaviors, or not. Youth are prone to what is called ‘contagion’: they can be stimulated to follow the behavior of others, including what they see and hear on TV, radio, and in the music they listen to. We see this problem in its most grave form when media sensationalize suicidal behavior, which almost invariably increases its incidence.
With stories (personal and professional), neuroscience and cognition, psychology and clinical experience Dr. Shatkin offers an abundance of understandable, engaging and actionable information. He explains why and shows how. We can reduce risk in the adolescents we love and teach, but only if we know how to do so and then do it. Born To Be Wild shows us the way to succeed.
An excerpt from Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America Poll of 2014, 75 percent of children in the United States have at least one electronic device in their bedroom, with a television being the most common (45 percent). Over one-third of these children leave the television on all night long, which is known to be especially disruptive to sleep because of the constant exposure to light and noise. With the mass proliferation of smartphones, tablets, computers, and video games, the median number of electronic devices in children’s bedrooms has climbed to one for children six to eleven years of age, two for those aged twelve to fourteen, and three for those over fifteen. Because adolescents generally experience a major circadian shift in their sleep cycle beginning around puberty, the distraction of electronics in the room during the teen years is particularly damaging.
Adolescents’ natural circadian rhythm forces them toward a delayed sleep phase, going to bed and awakening later. For the average teenager, bedtime pushes later into the evening, total sleep time on weekdays decreases, and teens disproportionately complain of excessive daytime sleepiness. Given their tendency for a delayed sleep cycle, it’s ironic that the older kids get, the earlier school starts.
One of my patients, Tony, is emblematic of a classic but all too common cautionary tale of the dangers of a delayed sleep phase. I met Tony during his winter vacation, just after being put on probation by his college. Leaving home for a university halfway across the country is a challenge for any adolescent, but it was a particular struggle for Tony. Although an extremely intelligent and kindhearted boy, he had always found intimate friendships a struggle, and he tended to isolate himself. He maintained a robust social life online, and he would stay up late into the evening gaming with friends and acquaintances. But in his classes and within his dormitory, he had virtually no friends. He began sleeping through his morning classes, playing on the computer late into the evening while avoiding his schoolwork. Eventually, his sleep cycle was so turned around that he was going to bed around five in the morning and sleeping until noon. Lots of things got in the way of Tony’s studying and being an effective student, but his sleep cycle ultimately became a big contributor. He went back to school in spring, not heeding the recommendations from me and his academic adviser, and things only got worse. As he fell further and further behind in school, his anxiety mounted, and he just about entirely stopped sleeping for three weeks. By May, he was failing all of his courses, and the college placed him on academic suspension.
It’s not really the television, computer, and smartphone that lie at the root of Tony’s problems, of course, and the difficulties that so many of our adolescents have with maintaining a proper circadian rhythm. Tony struggles with anxiety and social skills, which are the real culprits in his case. But the contribution of devices and even electricity simply cannot be denied. Ever since we could keep the lights and radio on past dark, we’ve been extending our bedtimes later and later. Data from 1897 through 2009 demonstrate that not only has our children’s bedtime been extended but doctors’ recommendations have also followed suit, to the tune of 0.71 minutes per year. That may not seem like so much, but when you multiply 0.71 by those 112 years (1897 to 2009) you get 80, or one hour and twenty minutes. It turns out that a lot can happen in that time.
Although early high school start times are correlated with lower grades and SAT scores, academic achievement is just the tip of the iceberg. Early morning awakening among teens is also associated with an increase in automobile accidents. Moving the high school start time later by only one hour resulted in a 16.5 percent reduction in motor vehicle accidents in a Kentucky county in a single year. Early school start times also mean more school absences and increased caffeine use. Most importantly, the broad range of cognitive skills involved in decision making are strongly affected by sleep restriction, leading to trouble with adapting to changing information, revising strategies based on new information, innovation, maintaining focus, insight, communication, memory, and risk assessment. Intuitively, we all know that even one night of poor sleep makes us irritable and less likely to make good decisions the following day. Experimentally, we now know that sleep calms the brain’s threat perception center, housed within the amygdala (within the limbic system, or emotional brain), allowing the prefrontal cortex to exert greater “top-down” control over our emotions when we’re better rested. Strictly speaking, a good night’s sleep reduces risky behavior among adolescents by allowing enhanced prefrontal control over emotional brain centers.
As any parent of a tween, teen or 20-something knows, adolescents take risks. In fact, those aged 12-26 are hard-wired to take risks, but how do you combat these natural impulses? In Born to Be Wild, Jess Shatkin brings more than two decades' worth of research and clinical experience to the subject, along with cutting-edge findings from brain science, evolutionary psychology, game theory, and other disciplines -- plus a widely curious mind and the perspective of a concerned dad himself.
As Dr. Shatkin illustrates in Born to Be Wild:
Adolescents are genetically engineered to prioritize emotions over logic: Teens make risky choices for social acceptance and to avoid emotional pain. If a peer is watching, even a peer they don’t know, adolescents are more likely to take risks.
Teens know that they’re not invincible. In fact, studies have shown that, when teens engage in risky behavior, they often overestimate their chances of being harmed by that behavior.
Improving parenting practices and increasing parent monitoring can help halt high-risk behaviors: Shatkin shares Parent Management Training (PMT) techniques that emphasize tactful praise over remonstrations of how not to behave.
Supportive families benefit the brain: Studies show teens raised by parents with low levels of conflict in their homes have less demanding brain reward centers; these teens will engage in less risk-taking behavior because their interpersonal relationships are rewarding.
Ironically, even though adolescence is a risk-taking time, it is also a time of incredible potential. In Born to Be Wild, Shatkin shows what parents and teachers can do--in everyday interactions, teachable moments, and specially chosen activities and outings--to work with teens' need for risk, rewards and social acceptance, not against it.
My Review: This book is an excellent resource for parents, and professionals working with children and teenagers. Seriously, Shatkin addresses so many things throughout this book, including social media, the idea that teens think they are invincible and peer pressure, just to name a few topics. Some humor is sprinkled in as well as personal anecdotes, along with the research, the lists and the facts. This is an easy book to read as it flows so nicely and is neatly divided into chapters, making it also a great resource to go pick up and read a section that pertains to the moment or season in life. This is such a tough time in a person's life, but it can also be rewarding and a time of learning with good supports. I highly recommend this book! About the Author: Nationally recognized child and adolescent psychiatrist Jess P. Shatkin, M.D., M.P.H., is one of the country's foremost voices in child and adolescent mental health. He serves as Vice Chair for Education at the Child Study Center and Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine. He has been featured in top print, radio, TV, and Internet outlets, including the New York Times, Good Morning America, Parade, New York Magazine, Health Day, CBS Evening News, New York Daily News, Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. In addition, for the past eight years Dr. Shatkin has been the host of "About Our Kids," a two-hour call-in radio show broadcast live on SiriusXM's Doctor Radio. He lives in New York City with his wife and two teenage children.
How many times do you think you’ve said this to your adolescent child? Wild and unpredictable teen behavior can be enough to drive a parent completely bonkers. Thankfully, the past ten years have ushered in a virtual revolution in our understanding of the adolescent brain, and with it an appreciation of what we can do better to help raise resilient and less risky kids. If you’re looking to get a better understanding of what happens when your kid enters adolescence — and why teens do some of the wild things they do — check out this list of five things you may not know about the teen brain:
1. Evolution has purposely put the teen brain out of balance. You are no doubt aware that adolescents’ emotions often get the best of them, and we now know why. The emotional part of the brain (known as the limbic system) develops faster and is not well controlled by the brain’s CEO (known as the prefrontal cortex) until our late 20s. This means that adolescents are more responsive to their emotions and struggle to control their reactions at moments when they feel stressed, tired, hungry, horny, or when their peers are watching them. Seems a shame, but from an evolutionary standpoint, this neurodevelopmental imbalance makes perfect sense. As a species we’ve needed our teens to take risks — humans are stronger and faster and tolerate pain and temperature extremes better as adolescents than they ever will as adults. If someone has to search out new mates or food and water supplies across the blazing hot savannah, why not send the one whose body can tolerate it best?
2. Dopamine makes things feel better than they ever have before. Dopamine’s real job is not to give us pleasure; dopamine is a neurochemical that tells us when something “might” give us pleasure. By promising us pleasure, dopamine drives us to learn and teaches us what’s important for our survival. Think about it this way: The first time you ate spaghetti, you didn’t know what you were in for … and for most of us, that first bite tasted great! Our brains released a big squirt of dopamine, which told us that these funny noodles really mattered. Those noodles do matter because without food we can’t survive. Now, every time we think about spaghetti (with that savory red sauce and crumbled parmesan cheese), our brains release dopamine, which tells us that we should get that noodle dish because it’s important for our survival. During our teenage years, dopamine is floating around in higher amounts than ever before, and that translates into things feeling much better than they ever have, which can lead to a lot of risk-taking behavior.
3. Hormones are doing more than you think. Some of our most important pubertal hormones, like testosterone, aren’t only about lowering our voices and putting hair on our bodies in funny places. Testosterone is really about cluing kids into the social order. Ever wonder how your fun-loving 10-year-old became a super self-conscious teen who lives and dies by what his friends think? Testosterone and other pubertal hormones like oxytocin are to blame. These hormones play a big role in our kids’ growing awareness of peers, their obsession with social status, and their desire to be a part of the “in” group. That’s all totally normal because life is a team sport, and we cannot survive without one another. These hormones tune our kids into the social zeitgeist, which is vital for our species’ evolutionary survival.
4. Melatonin matters. Melatonin is a hormone that makes us sleepy and is released by our brains at nighttime. Perhaps you know that the screens our kids watch all day and night can reduce a lot of natural melatonin release, which can disrupt their sleep. But sleep is only part of the story. Less melatonin increases the likelihood of early puberty, which is awful for our kids because it increases their risks for all sorts of bad physical and behavioral outcomes.
5. There’s pain in the brain. Ever wonder why your teen is obsessed with what his peers think? Well, here’s why: Evolution has piggybacked the brain’s social attachment system onto the brain’s pain system. When our kids are socially excluded, like not invited to a party or tagged in a Facebook photo, they feel genuine pain. That pain is so real that it can even be relieved with Tylenol. What would a kid do to avoid pain? All sorts of things, even take risks.
“My book is about adolescents—how they age, how they grow, and how they make decisions. Why do they do what seem like the most insane things at times? I wrote my book because I’ve always been really interested in the teenage years, and not only teens, but adolescence, that period of time from about 10,11,12 until about 25, 26,27, when we actually start to not only become, but act, like adults. Those years so many things change and we all remember those years in in our own lives so acutely, so intensely, just like it was yesterday. Well, it turns out there are a bunch of reasons why that is the case and we set a path for ourselves during those years that really forecasts our future…so much inevitably changes and predicts who we will become and how we will get there. And that is something that has fascinated me my entire life.”
Join us to hear insights from acclaimed adolescent NYU psychiatrist and educator Jess Shatkin, author of Born to Be Wild - Why Teens Take Risks and How We Can Keep Them Safe.Dr. Shatkin will discuss the main themes of his upcoming book and answer questions from the audience as part of our BASIS Independent Thought Speaker Series. Slated for publication in early October,Born to Be Wild is a groundbreaking, research-based guide that sheds new light on why young people make dangerous choices–and offers solutions that work. Texting while driving. Binge-drinking. Bullying. There are plenty of reasons for parents to worry about getting a late-night call about their teen. But most of the advice parents and educators hear about teens is outdated and unscientific–and simply doesn't work.
Dr. Shatkin brings more than two decades’ worth of research and clinical experience to the subject, along with cutting-edge findings from brain science, evolutionary psychology, game theory, and other disciplines — plus a widely curious mind and the perspective of a concerned dad himself.
As my adolescent kids head out for a party that starts as I am heading to bed, I run through a checklist of safety reminders – stick with your friends, make sure your phone is charged, don’t drink the punch at the party, etc. Responding to the prevailing idea that our kids think they are invincible, I act as if reminding them of all the risks out there will somehow keep them safe.
But it doesn’t work.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist, Jess Shatkin, tells us in his newly released book, Born to Be Wild, that no matter how much we tell our kids they are at risk, it won’t change their behavior. How can that be? Here are some thoughts drawn from the book. 1. Adolescents already know about risk. They actually overestimate risk. Adolescents don’t need to be told about the hazards of drinking and driving, or having unprotected sex. In fact, they are inclined to grossly exaggerate the danger of engaging in such behaviors.
2. Adolescents also overestimate themselves. Adolescent thinking goes like this: Having unprotected sex will result in a sexually transmitted disease more than 75% of the time (actually not), but I have better than average judgment about people, and I know my partner doesn’t have anything to spread. Psychologists call these two errors of judgment “pluralistic ignorance” (i.e., Others don’t know how to protect themselves from the known risk) and “optimistic bias” (i.e., I know all about the risk, but I know better than others what it takes to protect myself).
3. And don’t forget the dopamine frenzy. There is more dopamine flowing in the adolescent brain, and the adolescent brain is more responsive to dopamine, than at any other time in our lives. An essential neurochemical, dopamine plays a central role in our reward system and in promoting learning. In adolescence, we head out on the highway and take risk to get those intense hits of pleasure. The risk taking ensures the survival of our species by teaching us about what is pleasurable and what matters for survival – like eating and procreating.
4. Adolescence lasts longer than you think. Adolescence has its roots in the Latin, adolescere, meaning “to grow to maturity.” Historically, adolescent and teenager were synonymous. But modern studies of the brain tell us it starts sooner and lasts longer. At least in terms of brain development, adolescence begins during the “tween” years and the neural drama of this phase of brain development and pruning isn’t finished until well into our twenties.
5. So what are parents to do? We fret for the safety of our kids. This makes total sense given the rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, and accidents as well as opioid and other drug-related deaths among our adolescents today. In Born to be Wild, Dr. Shatkin brings home the futility of lecturing our kids about risk. He makes adolescent risk taking make total sense – essential to healthy development of judgment, self-esteem, resilience, and self-knowledge. It’s even essential to the survival of the species. Dr. Shatkin also offers wisdom as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and as a parent on how we can help our kids find that sweet spot of healthy risk taking.
Born to be Wild makes brain science and social science research come to life in understanding our own adolescence and that of our kids. As Dr. Shatkin says, we are perfect parents until we have kids. Then reality hits.
Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health Program at Columbia University Medical Center. For more information, please visit cugmhp.org or call 646.774.5308.