Deciphering Troubled Teens’ Risk-Taking Behavior

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The rebellious teenager makes everyone edgy. Their parents are an anxious lot. Their teachers are at their wit’s end trying to figure out ways to rein them in. The traffic sergeants roll their eyes in exasperation when they land up drunk behind the wheel. Sociologists are intrigued and want to know what is it that makes them act the way they do — is it genes, hormones, a rite of passage, peer pressure, or an entirely unknown reason?

Risk-taking behavior in adolescents is also a cause for concern. These kids are not only exposing themselves to danger with their penchant for speed, addictive substances, and irresponsible sexual behavior, but also putting the lives of other people at risk.

The risk-loving teenager gets ticked off for being immature. But scientists now know better. They have uncovered the reasons behind risk-taking behavior in adolescents. The teens are not entirely to blame; it is the way their brains develop during these years — a little lopsidedly — that makes them act the way they do.

A Timetable for Sensation-Seeking Behavior and Impulsivity

Adolescents are often chided for their sensation-seeking behavior, an overwhelming urge to seek out novel experiences. Many people equate this tendency to look for “thrills” with impulsive or risk-taking behavior. But according to scientists, sensation-seeking behavior and impulsivity have definite but distinct developmental timetables.

Sensation-seeking behavior is on the rise between 10 and 15 years of age. The tendency usually decreases after this period or stabilizes. But impulsivity starts to decline from around the age of 10 years. So there is a particular stage in their development when they do seek out thrills, but their impulsivity at these times is triggered by their peculiar brain chemistry. Teenagers do not engage in risk-taking behavior because they get a high from it.

The Brain of an Adolescent

Scientists have uncovered what goes on inside the brain of an adolescent that makes him behave impulsively. What happens is an intriguing interplay of neuronal and socio-emotional factors.

During adolescence, the subcortical region of the brain matures rapidly. This region is associated with the motivation system. So the individual becomes increasingly responsive to new sensations and novel situations and experiences. It becomes sensitive to rewards, so individuals are often found to engage in reward-seeking behavior.

Most adolescents want to be accepted by their peers. They want to conform to peer standards. If you remember your own days of adolescence, you know that an act of daredevilry gets you those oh-so-delicious admiring glances and a pat on the back from your peers. Peer acceptance acts on the dopaminergic system of the brain and adolescents begin to associate these acts of daredevilry with reward.

But if their brains have become mature enough to be motivated by rewards, what makes adolescents act impulsively? Shouldn’t they be also mature enough to distinguish between socially acceptable behavior and reckless acts that endanger themselves and those around them?

Scientists have the answers to these questions.

The adolescent brain is mature, but only in certain regions. The rapid development of the limbic and paralimbic structures of the brain makes a young person seek out new experiences while the maturity of the subcortical region influences his reward system. But the ability to differentiate between safe and reckless acts involves the executive functionality of the brain.

The higher-level cognitive functionality of the brain is regulated by the orbital frontal cortex region. According to research findings, adolescent brains do not show much maturity in this region. In fact, the development in this area is more similar to what can be found in the brains of children than in adults. There is less focus on activities, which explains why adolescents are not able to determine the risks in their actions.

The slow development of the cognitive-control system also means that adolescents are less able to control impulsive behavior.

So the developing brains of adolescents are actually maturing in a skewed manner. The motivation and rewards system develops faster than the cognitive-control system. This developmental gap makes adolescents vulnerable to risk-taking behavior. So contrary to popular notion, adolescents are not reckless because they are immature, ignorant, or irrational. They are impulsive not because they don’t care.

Adolescent Brains are Comfortable with Ambiguity

Another study associates risk-taking behavior amongst adolescents to a greater willingness on their part to accept and be comfortable with ambiguity or even not knowing. This study found that compared to adults, adolescents are more likely to rush into and get involved in situations where they don’t know the chances of their success or where there is an equal chance of them winning or failing.

Scientists believe that this trait amongst adolescents is biologically motivated. The chance of young animals surviving and thriving in the wild is dependent on their ability to make the most of learning opportunities.

Can Adolescent Impulsivity be Curbed?

Risk-taking behavior in adolescents costs life and money. Adolescents who are prone to behavior like speeding and driving under the influence of addictive substances endanger the lives of others. Those who indulge in substance abuse harm themselves and shatter families. Again, adolescents with substance abuse are more vulnerable to developing other kinds of risk-taking behavior like delinquency and risky sexual behavior. The result is countless lives are wasted. In this context, there are significant implications of the findings from the above studies.

Trying to change the attitudes of adolescents towards risky behavior seems futile. After all, they don’t have much control over how their brains make them perceive situations and react to these. In such a scenario, providing parental support and guidance and establishing a positive school environment assume critical importance. Parents, family members, teachers, and counselors should make a concerted effort to educate these vulnerable youngsters about the risks and costs (both to themselves and to the society) of impulsive behavior.

Puberty, hormonal changes, and the lopsided developments of their brains. Adolescents have to grapple with a lot. Risk-taking behavior in adolescents is their way of letting you know that they are feeling incapable of handling hall that is happening inside their heads and they need your help.


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Tymula, A., Rosenberg Belmaker, L., Roy, A., Ruderman, L., Manson, K., Glimcher, P., & Levy, I. (2012). Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (42), 17135-17140 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1207144109

Image via homydesign / Shutterstock.

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