The best way to guide your teenager through the high-risk years.

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Feb. 5 2010 7:10 AM

No Brakes!

The best way to guide your teenager through the high-risk years.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Our last article summarized the current state of research on teens and risk. That research demonstrates that teenagers do not suffer from some special inability to reason. Larry Steinberg and other researchers explain the steep rise in risk-taking behavior that comes with puberty by elaborating the interplay between two brain systems. The social-emotional system, which develops robustly in early adolescence, seeks out rewarding experiences, especially the sensation afforded by novel and risky behavior, and is also activated by the presence of peers. The cognitive-control system, which undergoes its great burst of development in later adolescence, evaluates and governs the impulses of the social-emotional system.

During the years of greatest risk-taking, which peak somewhere around the age of 16 and during which the presence of peers greatly increases risk-taking, the adolescent brain is like a car with a powerful accelerator (the sensation- and peer-seeking social-emotional system) and weak brakes (the risk-containing cognitive-control system). That being the case, it's clear why some common approaches to reducing risk-taking by teenagers—explaining why drunk driving is dangerous, asking them to pledge to abstain from premarital sex—don't work very well.

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A couple of qualifications are in order. First, the social-emotional system is not always "active." When adolescents are emotionally excited, stimulated, or with peers (which amounts to the same thing, as the brain sees it), the social-emotional system is likely to kick in and exert influence that leads to risk taking. Yet, even those early adolescents most prone to risky behavior can often exert cognitive control and regulate their impulses under conditions in which there is little or no arousal—when peers are not around, for instance.

Second, knowledge of the interconnections among brain function, hormones, behavior, and interpersonal influences is advancing rapidly, so it's likely that the current understanding offers only a partial picture and account. It's also a one-size-fits-all explanation for a process that shows a great deal of variation. We don't yet have a good predictive understanding of who will and will not show high-risk behaviors.

But there's enough clarity in the current research to warrant a second look at some common beliefs about teenagers and risk and some common parental approaches to dealing with it. Having started out in our last article by debunking myths and criticizing some common approaches to reducing risk-taking, we hasten to add that the research also supports the efficacy of some tried-and-true approaches.

Now, if you're expecting modern science to produce a magic-bullet gimmick—or a pill—to contain teen risk, you're going to be disappointed. The parental responses supported by recent research are as mundane as they get. They may strike you as obvious, but that doesn't mean they're unimportant or necessarily easy to pursue. Dealing with adolescent risk seems to be a challenge best addressed not with sudden drastic measures but by sticking to the fundamentals of good parenting over the long haul.

To begin with, the research underscores that the company your child keeps is important. Because early adolescence is a period of increased susceptibility to peer influences, having friends who engage in risky behaviors increases an individual's likelihood of engaging in these behaviors. Affiliating with deviant peers is one of the strongest predictors for adolescents engaging in substance use and abuse.

And don't underrate the value of simply playing for time. It can seem defeatist to tell yourself, "If I can just get my kid through adolescence in one piece, everything will be all right," but there's wisdom in that common parental resolve. The research shows that the earlier the onset of risk behavior, the more likely that there will be negative consequences—poorer mental and physical health later on in life, less economic productivity, and so on. Postponing the onset of risky behaviors through other activities, including out-and-out distraction and pandering ("Let's go clothes shopping again!") is not the worst strategy. Postponing and limiting contact with peers who engage in risky behavior can also help.

How do you do this?

1. Monitor your child

Monitoring means keeping track of where your child is, what he's doing, and whom he's with. The teenage children of parents who monitor their whereabouts and activities are much less likely to engage in sexual activity and illicit drug use. Also, more intense monitoring is associated with greater reduction in risky behavior. This is referred to as a dose-response relation: The more of the dose, the greater the impact. If you feel awkward and uncool about hounding your poor child, remember that there's a strong dose-response relation between monitoring and decreased risk.

One reason proposed for the finding that boys engage in more risky behavior than girls is that parents monitor teenage girls more closely than they do boys. For example, girls have earlier curfews and more household chores to do. There's nothing fair or enlightened about this gender difference, but it has the effect of reducing girls' risk-taking.

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