Choice, risk and the teenage brain

The teenage brain

The human brain doesn’t finish developing until we are in our mid-twenties, and so the teenage brain is very different from what it will become as an adult. This has significant implications for decision-making.

The last part of the brain to develop is the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part that weighs up risk and consequence, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions. This means it can be much harder for teenagers to think ahead and make sensible decisions.

This section of the brain also helps people understand one another, and the underdevelopment of the pre-frontal cortex is what can give teenagers a heightened self-consciousness and concern for their peers’ good opinion.

An area of the teenager’s brain that is fairly well-developed early on, though, is the nucleus accumbens, or the area of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward. In imaging studies that compared brain activity when the subject received a small, medium or large reward, teenagers showed exaggerated responses to medium and large rewards compared to children and adults

This combination of factors is what leads many teenagers to take greater risks than adults, because they’re seeking a buzz to satisfy that reward centre, while their prefrontal cortex can’t register all the risks these actions involve. Added to that is the influence of peers and the acute concern about what they might think of them.

Many studies have shown that teenagers are more likely to take risks if they are being watched by another teenager. An example is a study that placed teenagers in a driving simulator showed that if they were on their own or with an adult, then their accident rate was identical to an adult’s. However, place another teenager next to them, and the accident rate increased dramatically.

These videos are useful for understanding the teenage brain:

  • Laci Green: the teen brain – under construction:

  • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain (TED talk 17 Sept 2012)

What can parents do?

Learning to manage risk is a very important skill we all need to learn from childhood. As a parent, there’s a lot you can do to help your child make choices that keep them safe in risky situations, although all the odds may seem stacked against them in their teens. Helping them understand what’s going on inside their heads when they’re faced with choices as teenagers can enable them to be more self-aware, and more self-conscious about their own decision-making process, which can in turn help them make these choices confidently, independently and safely.


Peer pressure

Help them be clear about where they stand on drugs and alcohol, and to plan ahead how they’ll aim to respond in different situations. Help them identify strategies to stick with their own decisions, and to get out of pressured situations. These are some great videos you can watch together:

  • The Behaviour Science Guys show an experiment with a group of teens to demonstrate the influence of peers over our better judgement, and explain what’s at work when this happens. They also talk about how peer influence can be used as positive force for good:

  • The young people of the New York YMCA have put together a video that has lots of different strategies to use to combat peer pressure. Chat with your child about what might work for them:

  • Charlie Houpert, the founder of Charisma on Command, talks through some strategies for older young people to use if they feel pressured:

Practise responding safely

Help them recognise risky situations for what they are, and practise finding alerts in various scenarios so they can avoid such risks. If they can’t be avoided for any reason, help them think through what they could do to get themselves out of the situation.

Help them practise refusal skills in real situations, so they can develop self-confidence in using these skills when they are needed in a risky situation, which will often be one where high emotion can make it harder to think clearly.


Avoidance tactics

It’s important that teenagers learn to understand and manage risks safely as they get older, but sometimes the best way of managing risk is by simply avoiding certain situations, especially ones in which they might feel vulnerable to making a risky decision. Help them to learn to judge which these might be, to know it’s OK not to do things they don’t want to do, and you can always provide an excuse for them if they feel that would help.