Ep 94: Why Teens Run Wild & How to Keep Them Safe

Dr. Jess Shatkin, author of Born to be Wild and expert in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry, clues us into why teens run wild and how we can help keep them safe. A still-developing brain and high levels of hormones mean parents have their work cut out for them!

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Full show notes

We have the “talk” with our teens and make sure they at least attend health class. We push our teens to get adequate sleep and nutrition. We put our teens through D.A.R.E. and make clear drugs and alcohol are not acceptable. And vandalism and stealing are against the law--we shouldn't even have to mention that to our teens.

So Why--why! we wonder, Why do teenagers still do these things!? And for Chrissake why is it always teens doing the misbehaving? You rarely see groups of 25 year old's, 40 year old's or (spry) 80 year old's participating in reckless and risky behaviors.

Adults--from parents to deans to coaches--devote so much time and energy into trying to teach adolescents the risks of misbehaving. From broken bones to trauma, we want to help our teens avoid threats to their physical and mental health—so why don’t teens act accordingly? Why are teenagers more likely to take risks than any other age group? Do they really think they’re invincible?

Teenage risk taking is more complicated than just a single platitude. It’s not just the fact that teen brain’s executive regions are under construction: an influx of hormones muddles things up along with intense peer pressure, whether real or perceived.

To understand the interaction between the biology and neurology of the teen brain, this week I spoke with Dr. Jess Shatkin, author of Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. As a practicing psychiatrist in Manhattan and Vice Chair for Education and Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Shatkin has been entrenched in the workings of the teenage brain for decades.

Dr. Shatkin was curious as to why teenagers make risky decisions even in his early days. The youngest of eight, he watched his older siblings morph and change, from tame tweens to wild teens to mature twentysomethings and adults. When Dr. Shatkin himself was a teen, he realized that he was making decisions he logically wouldn’t otherwise, had he been younger. And with older siblings to look up to, he knew he wouldn’t always feel so, well, wild.

While teenage risk taking is more common than we’d like, it turns out teens don’t actually think they are invincible, as many adults have come to believe. We’d be wrong to assume teens feel as invincible as we think they act.

When researchers actually began to ask teens if they think they’re invincible, a curious pattern emerged. Teenagers actually tend to overestimate the risk they face from certain activities. When prompted, most teenagers will say they believe they are around 90% likely to get pregnant from one instance of unprotected sex (the real number is somewhere around 20%). Some young people do believe that they are invincible, but from Jess’s studies, this is not due to age, but instead the personality of the individual. It’s the adults, in fact, who are more likely to feel a false sense of invincibility.

So then why are teenagers more likely to take risks if they are so certain that negative consequences will arise? As Jess explained to me, this can be largely attributed to evolution. Adolescence is when our body starts to develop the need to seem attractive to potential mates as well as adjust to any new changes in the environment. We suddenly experience an influx of hormones which encourage us to impress our peers by exhibiting our affinity for danger.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we want our peers to see us as cool, interesting, and sexy--good qualities in a viable mate. In one study Dr. Shatkin and I talked about, researchers used financial choices to assess young people’s changes in decision making. Every students who participated was given two options: get $200 immediately, or wait six months and receive $1,000. $1,000 is 4 times more than the $200--the choice should be easy! And for students that made the decision alone, it was. They all selected the delayed reward of the $1000. However, when the researchers had a student make the exact same decision but in front of one or more peers, the majority of students switched to taking the immediate $200. Even when the researchers just made participants think there was a peer watching from behind a one-way mirror, the students took the immediate reward. It was as if the logical processing power of the brain was turned off in the face of a peer nearby.

As parents, this might be alarming. The study has implications far beyond just missing out on $800. What if your teen follows their friends to a college that is exorbitantly expensive just because it is ‘cooler’? Or what if they put their life on the line when driving a peer home? You want your children to become responsible, respectable independent thinkers, not impulsive risk takers who are frighteningly susceptible to peer pressure! You’ve already warned them about the dangers of teenage risk taking and yet, they seem to insist on getting into trouble.

When it comes to helping our kids develop ways to muster through tempting risks, Dr. Shatkin reminds us that the language we use is of the utmost importance. Just telling kids that activities are risky does not make them less likely to participate in them. Take for example the high rates of teen pregnancy among teens who have been given the simple message of “don’t,” with no education around it.

Simply inundating teens with the same warning messages over and over, doesn’t lead to changed behavior. Instead of repeating how risky having unprotected sex is, you could have a conversation with your teen about what your teen could say or do when they find themselves in a heated and compromising situation. See our interview with Dr. Lisa Damour on helping teens develop more ways to say ‘no.’

And what is it that drives teens to seek out these risky situations? The answer is a hormone we more regularly associate with matters of lust: dopamine. But dopamine is not just for lovers. It is a vital hormone that drives us to take action, getting us excited about possibilities. Dopamine is intricately linked to reward circuitry and is at elevated levels during the teen years. Readers may already be familiar with the studies that show teens' brains look similar to the brains of gambling addicts under fMRI scans.

Dopamine spikes when we sense a reward is near--like thinking about an upcoming vacation or how impressed your peers will be if you snuck into your neighbor’s pool and did a cannonball. If you haven’t planned that vacation yet, dopamine will keep you busily scheduling and booking things, and you might even get a little spike in dopamine when you tell other people about it. The difference for a teen might be they are wildly excited about the vacation, particularly if it can make them seem ‘cool’ to their peers. They might develop a bug for traveling if they firstly enjoy their time traveling and if they receive the ‘reward’ of peer approval when they come back and regale their peers with tales of their adventures. Dopamine drives everyone to try new things, and if the “reward” is big enough, we keep doing it until it becomes a habit or the reward grows worn and no longer dynamic.

Teens, however, have much more active dopamine pathways. This is why we see lots of teenage risk taking: teens are driven to try new things, often to the extreme and dangerous. They get a bigger rush of dopamine when dared to spray paint a building than an adult. Or, as those researchers found out, bigger rushes of dopamine when placing bets.

In the episode, Dr. Shatkin breaks down the teen dopamine science even further, explaining the two different types of dopamine and how they affect. Dr. Shatkin reminds us that teenage risk taking is not a teen’s attempt at spiting their parents or school--mostly they are just responding to thousands of years of evolution: teens are wired to take more risks (even when they know the dangers)!

However, there is hope yet. Parents don’t need to feel helpless in the face of teenage risk taking. Dr. Shatkin not only provides the background to better understand what is happening with our teens, but offers tips and guidance on which specific parenting practices can steer your teen back toward safety.

In this episode we cover:
  • Why prediction error is so significant in the adolescent years
  • How to instill self-regulation in teens
  • Dr. Shatkin’s proven-to-get-results 5 Positive Parenting tactics
  • Which hormones are driving teenage risk taking (it’s not just dopamine!)
  • What the Peer Effect is and how giving teens alone time can turn on their logical brains
Dr. Shatkin’s book was incredible and I am so excited to share his immense knowledge about teens with our listeners! Cheers!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. Jess P Shatkin
Dr. Jess P Shatkin
Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist @NYULMC. CAMS Director @nyuniversity. Born To Be Wild https://t.co/Dn8mOl0ACz
Ep 94: Why Teens Run Wild & How to Keep Them Safe
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