3 min read

Risky Business: The neuroscience behind teens’ dubious choices

From cautious and careful to reckless and un-restrained; a new disregard for rules, regulation and boundaries means your teenager has truly arrived.  In fact, teenagers have double the risk of dying compared to their pre-teen selves.

But why has the child who used to reach for your hand to cross the street become so careless, impulsive and thoughtless when it comes to choices affecting their safety and well-being?

The answer lies in neuroscience, of course, and genetics.

Gail Smillie is Carya’s Teen Brain Expert.  She has a Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Victoria and has specialized in child and youth mental health for over 30 years.  She explains:

“Mother Nature has a way of testing our parenting skills.  Sometimes even the most reserved parents can have the most extroverted child, the most physical and outdoorsy parents can have a child who isn’t so stimulated by sport and the most cautious parents can end up with a real daredevil in their lives.  That’s the roulette of genetics and it’s wonderful.

But beyond genetics, the teenage years are ones were safety, caution and consequences are no longer at the forefront of your child’s mind.  In fact, quite the opposite; your teenagers developing brain is DRAWN to risk.

Research shows that teenager’s brains have a greater tolerance for uncertainty and they process information with this tolerance for the unknown.  Teen brains are also far more reward focused than adult brains.  The combination of these two significant changes in the teenage brain means that teens are simply wired to take risks, especially when the risk offers some temporary reward for the senses.

 Why would evolution do this to our kids?  Because tolerance for uncertainty allows our teenagers to explore the world more comfortably and ultimately leave the nest.  Your teen is being biologically prepared to take on life independently and that’s a great thing. 

As parents of teens you need to parent-to-prepare which means, to an extent, working with these biological changes, supporting your child in healthy risk taking while being mindful of unhealthy risk taking and having those difficult conversations when required. 

Research also shows that teenagers engage in more unknown risks than known ones so understanding consequences and outcomes makes them less likely to engage in risky behavior.  That’s something you can use to your advantage as a parent.  Talk to your kids about consequences but don’t lecture them.  Making them aware is enough, the brain will likely do the rest.”

Find out more about the teenage brain at Carya’s Enspire Learning Series Event

Gail will be presenting Crazy by Design: Exploring the Adolescent Brain on February 4th at the Dutton Theatre, Central Library at 6.30pm.  Tickets cost $35 and are available here.