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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.