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The A to Z's of Teenagers: R Is for Risky

Photograph by Getty Images

Teens engage in risky behavior. It comes with the territory. It is the territory. Admit it: You did some brainless things when you were a teen, things that could have ended badly—but miraculously didn’t. I know I did.

I allowed a boy who clearly had too much to drink to drive me home from a party. I smoked cigarettes that I stole, with regularity, from my mother’s purse. I shoplifted a pair of shoes. I hitchhiked (hitchhiked!) alone (alone!) from New York to Boston. OK, there’s also other stuff, worse behavior involving the usual teen triad of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but my daughter is going to read this, so I’ll stop right here.

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I know that Lizzie has done some things she wouldn’t want me to know she’s done. And then there are the things I know she’s done that she doesn’t know I know because, well, I’m a journalist and my job is to find out stuff and, besides, she has two older brothers who keep close tabs on her and occasionally give me a heads-up. But not in a tattle-tale way. Really. Oh, OK. Sometimes in a tattle-tale way.

Why did I do what I did? Why does my daughter take risks that could endanger her health, her safety, her future? Why does yours?

Well, there’s what teens think…and then there’s why they think that way. They think—didn’t you once think?—they are invulnerable. They do not consider the idea of personal consequences. Bad things do happen, sure, but they happen to other people. Other people get in car accidents. Other people smoke and get lung cancer. Other people get caught and hauled down to the police station. Cautionary tales are meant for other people. Consequences are what happen to other people. Or, the notion of “consequence” doesn’t even cross their minds.

That’s crazy, right? Or crazy-making for us mothers. So why do teens think that way? In the process of doing research for my book, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence, I delved into the mysteries of the teen brain. And there lies the answer.

The teen brain is not what we once thought it was: a fully functioning organ that went through its one monumental change in early childhood. Instead, it is a work in progress, unfinished, incompletely wired, not yet up to speed, not yet open for the business of wise and measured living. The last part of the brain to come on line is the prefrontal cortex, the seat of moral reasoning, rational decision-making, emotional control and impulse restraint.

This is the “cop” part of the brain that, if functioning well, would prevent a person from doing something stupid or impulsive (or both) that will later be regretted. This is the hey-kid-actions-have-consequences part of the brain. Without a fully functioning prefrontal cortex (it doesn’t ramp up completely until a person’s early 20s), the teen brain often relies on other parts of the organ to process information. Like the limbic brain, aka the “lizard” brain. This is the zero-to-sixty, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead part of the brain, the consequences? what consequences? part of the brain. And this is where a lot of “decisions” (note ironic use of quotes) get “processed” (ditto) by teens.

When you’re a kid and all the choices are made for you by others, making any choice makes you feel in control.

It helps to know this. It helps to know that, for these (seemingly endless) teen years, we moms have to not only be vigilant and protective, we also have to use the power of our fully functional adult brains to provide some of that prefrontal cortex “cop” for our kids.

And now, a word from the teenage daughter:

Okay, here’s a list of my risky behaviors….

Ha! You didn’t think I was really going to write about myself, not when my mom will be reading this. But I do know about the stupid things teens do, the things that can really blow up in their faces. I’m not saying I’ve never done anything risky myself, but—listen up, mom—this isn’t about me.

So here’s a list of risky behaviors, from bad to worse, that my friends, acquaintances and kids I’ve observed have done in high school but also (sorry, moms out there) also in middle school: Ditching class (or every class); being a new driver and driving with distractions like a carful of kids, loud music or texting; dating that “bad boy”; shoplifting; smoking cigarettes; massively overdosing on caffeine and high-sugar “energy” drinks; buying prescription meds from friends (adderall, anti-depressants); being intoxicated at school; putting yourself in a situation (wild party, no parents, alcohol and/or drugs) where bad things can happen.

So the question is…why? Why do teens do stupid stuff that can hurt themselves and others? It could be peer pressure, the desire to be accepted by kids at school who seem to be having all the fun. Maybe these are the cool kids and doing what they do is a way to be cool too. It could be that it’s part of building your image. Maybe you want to come off as a tough guy (or girl) to keep people away, to protect yourself, so you go out and do dangerous or illegal or risky things. Breaking the rules is also—let’s just admit this—exciting; especially if you come from a well-behaved family where everyone else follows the rules. There’s an adrenalin rush to misbehaving.

Risky behavior is also about rebellion, like against that well-behaved family or school where life is super regimented, or just what you figure is expected of you. I think rebellion like this is about power and control. Doing something risky and against the rules is a teen making a choice for herself. Yes, it can be a bad choice, but when you’re a kid and all the choices are made for you by others, making any choice makes you feel in control.

I feel like now would be the time to give you my opinion about what moms can do to stop the risky behavior of their teens.

You can’t do much.

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Remember that your kids are at school all day every day for five days a week. When they’re home, they’re on their own doing homework or texting friends or in front of a screen. Sorry, but you’re not that big a part of their lives! Besides, some risk-taking and rebellion are important parts of finding out who you are and what you want. As long as the risk isn’t life or future threatening, you should just chill out. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just your teen growing up.

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