Is the Teen Brain Hardwired for Risky Behavior?

Why do teens take so many risks? Not all teens, of course, but enough of them.

The U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancies in the western industrialized world. That’s three-quarters of a million pregnant girls a year (plus the three-quarters of a million boys who deserve half credit). Not all of these 1.5 million teens engaged in risky behavior, but birth control, when used, does prevent the vast majority of pregnancies.

And then there are teen drivers. Motor vehicle crashes account for one in three teen deaths, and more than a quarter of the kids who die in car accidents have been drinking alcohol. Drinking alcohol and driving is pretty much the definition of risky behavior. According to the CDC: During the past 30 days, 28.5% of high school students nationwide rode one or more times in a vehicle driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol.

Most campaigns that attempt to curb the risky behavior of teens are based on the rational notion that if only teens knew the risks, they would not choose the behavior. It’s because they don’t know the statistics. They don’t truly understand the danger. The consequences have not been spelled out for them and they don’t get whats at stake.

I’m not sure that’s true. Or rather, I think it is entirely possible that teens know the risks quite well—and they still take them. Why? Well, consider the teen brain. Here’s what I learned during my research for my new book, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence.

It turns out that the teen brain is a work in progress (to put it nicely). To put it more bluntly: The teen brain is unfinished, incompletely wired, not yet up to speed—and not yet open for the business of wise and measured living.

You may ask, what is the messiest of the messy inside the youthful cranium, the most unfinished part of the teen brain? It is the part of the brain that is the seat of moral reasoning, rational decision-making, emotional control and impulse restraint. This is the cop part of the brain (the frontal lobes) that, if functioning well, stops a person from doing something stupid, risky or impulsive (or all three). Its the part of the brain that understands risk and has the capacity to make informed decisions.

This part of the teen brain is not yet fully operational but another part of the teen brain can sometimes be used to process information that should be dealt with by the cop. And guess what part of the brain that is? Its the so-called lizard brain the primal, fight-or-flight emotional core of the brain, the trigger happy, gut reaction part of the brain. So instead of information being processed by the thoughtful, even-handed, mature part of the brain, its zipping through the hey, dude, whatever part of the brain where consequences are of no consequence.

Does neurological science excuse risky behavior? Does it take away the teens responsibility or ours? No. But it does explain why otherwise bright, lovely kids who know better take terrible risks.

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