Ever worry about your teen or tween making a mistake – like a really big mistake? Let’s face it, we were teens once too and we remember. As a parent of one teen and two tweens, these are nerve-wracking times. My sister used to tell me “little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems”. Now, I know what she meant. I find myself talking to my kids often about the choices they will face in these years ahead and give them advice, but I constantly wonder, are they truly listening?
What can we do to get them to listen?
In his book, Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe (TarcherPerigee; October 3, 2017), Jess P. Shatkin, M.D. explains how the adolescent brain is programmed and why it is prone to risky behavior.
In his book, Shatkin shakes up the notion that adolescents feel invincible. Think scaring our kids into doing what is right is effective? “Don’t do drugs, or you could overdose and die.” “Don’t have unprotected sex, or you will get pregnant.” “Don’t post naked pictures of yourself and send them to someone, or that will follow you for life.” Sound familiar? As Dr. Shatkin explains, our kids are already fearful. They already believe that if they get involved in risky behavior, they are more likely to have a negative outcome than is statistically realistic. So, why do they make bad decisions anyway?
Dr. Shatkin explains that adolescents are genetically engineered to prioritize emotions over logic. In the heat of the moment, teens and tweens make risky choices for social acceptance and to avoid emotional pain. If a peer is watching, even a peer they don’t know, adolescents are more likely to take risks.
The reason that teens rely on their emotions is that their limbic system (the emotional center of their brain) matures early on. Think of all those emotional outbursts they’ve been sharing with us through the years. All the while, the prefrontal cortex (CEO of the brain) is still developing well into their early 20s.
if instilling fear doesn’t work, what does?
As adults, we know not to get into a car with a driver who has drank too much. How do we know? Through years of experience. Sadly, teens don’t have years of experience to rely on. Instead, they rely on their emotions, especially in the heat of the moment and when their peers are around. In this book, we learn that our teens need an emotional connection to feel its really important to avoid a risky behavior. “Don’t do drugs or you could overdose and die” – doesn’t cut it. As parents, we need to connect with a more specific, emotional connection. For example, “Don’t drink or do drugs at the party, because you will get kicked off the soccer team.” “If you have unprotected sex and get pregnant, what will you do? Will you stay in school?”
Not only does Shatkin recommend creating an emotional connection with our teens when we discuss risky choices, but he also recommends practicing decision-making with them. As our teens are making decisions, they are “rewiring, reassembling, and upgrading neural tissue….The correct parts of the brain must talk to one another quickly and efficiently, and memory functions must be well integrated so that we learn from our successes and mistakes.”
What other ways can we help our children make better decisions?
While this book is full of strategies that both parents and teachers should adopt to be more effective in reducing risky behavior, I have listed a few of those recommended that as parents we can implement immediately.
Get More Sleep
Not surprising, sleep deprived children engage in more risky behavior than children getting adequate sleep. As Dr. Shatkin explains, schools could do more in this regard by delaying start times by even just 1 hour. Teenagers want to go to bed later and sleep in later, this is due to their natural circadian rhythm. “It’s ironic that the older kids get, the earlier school starts.”
Early school start times result in lower grades and SAT scores, more school absences, and increased caffeine use. But most importantly, a lack of sleep results in impaired decision-making skills.
Is the school going to change their start time anytime soon? Realistically, no. But, as parents we can encourage our children to get to sleep earlier. One easy way to do this is to get the phones out of their room – or cut service after a certain hour. We all want our children to do well in school, to avoid risky behavior, and to be better people. If getting a little more sleep each night can help this, shouldn’t we be enforcing this as much as we enforce them getting their homework done?
Offer an Opportunity for them to Take Risks
Limit phone time and give them an opportunity to take some risks. Healthy risks. Everyone is telling us that we need to do it, but when push comes to shove, our kids are still spending hours on their devices. They need to be active and outside. Get them involved in activities where they can practice risky behavior in more positive ways, such as mountain bike riding, go cart racing, rock climbing, snowboarding, riding a roller coaster, etc.
“In our hurried and harried world, it seems that our kids have been barely breathing.” Born to Be Wild teaches us the benefits that mindful breathing can have on our youth. In general, mindfulness has an overwhelming positive impact on t(w)eens, not just mindful breathing, but also mindful eating, and mindful gratitude.
On a family drive over the weekend, I practiced one of Shatkin’s breathing techniques with my tweens and teen. Admittedly, my youngest and oldest didn’t take the exercise too seriously, but my middle daughter, who wasn’t really speaking to us because she was upset that she was missing time with friends, committed to the exercise. After a few minutes of the recommended breathing, followed by a gratitude exercise (also recommended in this book), her attitude shifted. She smiled. She re-engaged with our family and started to have fun.
The important take-a-way from this book is that even though adolescence is a risk-taking time, it is also a time of incredible potential. This book is a must read for parents and teachers who want to learn what can be done in everyday interactions, teachable moments, and extracurricular activities to work with teens’ need for risk, rewards and social acceptance, not against it. I encourage you all to read this book. Let’s start a discussion. After all, just because we made mistakes in our youth, doesn’t mean our teens have to.