By Hugh C. McBride
Many teenagers are attracted to risky behaviors. Teens' affection for dangerous activities leads to results that range from the head-scratching (the continuing popularity of MTV's Jackass and its spinoffs) to the heart-rending (the National Center for Health Statistics says 51 percent of fatalities in the 15-to-19 age group are the result of "unintentional injury").
Recent studies have postulated a number of reasons for teens' dangerous tendencies, with possible causes including incomplete brain development and increased feelings of hopelessness.
As mental health experts continue to explore why young people continue to put themselves at risk, parents around the world are charged with the task of keeping their children safe while they make the challenging transition from adolescence to adulthood.
If you are the parent of a teenager, it's important that you continue to pursue answers to two important questions:
1. Why do teens continue to take so many risks?
2. What can I do to help my child stay safe?
Common Types of Risky Teen Behaviors
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) commissioned researchers with the Urban Institute to analyze risky behavior by American teens. From the opening sentences of the resulting report, "Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait," it is clear that risky behaviors are having a devastating yet preventable effect on the nation's youth:
The most serious threats to the health and safety of adolescents and young adults are preventable. They result from such risk-taking behaviors as fighting, teen substance abuse, suicide, and sexual activity rather than from illnesses. These behaviors have harmful, even deadly, consequences.
After evaluating data that had been collected in three studies – the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, the National Survey of Adolescent Males, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health – the authors of the DHHS/Urban Institute report concluded that teens most commonly put themselves at risk by engaging in one or more of the following 10 behaviors:
1. Regular alcohol use
2. Regular binge drinking
3. Regular tobacco use
4. Marijuana use
5. Other illegal drug use
7. Weapon carrying
8. Suicidal thoughts
9. Suicide attempts
10. Risky sexual activity
"Teens who engage in a risk behavior do not limit themselves to one behavior alone, as most health risk behaviors occur with others," the authors wrote. "This finding means that knowledge of a teen’s participation in one specific risk behavior can be taken as a warning signal of likely involvement in additional risk behaviors."
Wired for Danger?
It may not have taken a government report to convince most parents that drinking, drugs, depression and violence are among the greatest risks to their teenagers. But acknowledging the types of dangerous behaviors teens are likely to engage in brought experts one step closer to answering those two important questions: Why do teens take these risks, and how can parents keep them safe?
In 2008, the answer to the first question got a bit clearer.
According to a March 2008 ScienceDaily article, Jay N. Giedd, MD, of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) conducted groundbreaking research into the effect of brain development on the thoughts and actions of adolescents
"Adolescence is a time of substantial neurobiological and behavioral change, but the teen brain is not a broken or defective adult brain," Dr. Giedd wrote. "These changes and the enormous plasticity of the teen brain make adolescence a time of great risk and great opportunity."
Dr. Giedd's 2008 results built on conclusions that he and fellow researcher Laurence Steinberg, PhD, of Temple University, had arrived at the prior year. An April 13, 2007 WebMD article reported on these earlier findings:
• Giedd and Steinberg's research indicated that teenagers seek out risk-taking behaviors because the brain systems involved in decision-making mature at different times.
• The section of the brain most involved in emotion and social interaction becomes very active during puberty, while the section most critical for regulating behavior is still maturing into early adulthood.
"We have tried to prevent these behaviors by educating kids about the dangers of things like smoking, drinking, taking drugs, and unprotected sex," Dr. Steinberg told WebMD. "The thinking has been if they know about the dangers they won't do these things, but that is clearly not true."
A Pervasive Hopelessness
The influence of incomplete brain development on teens' risk-taking may be exacerbated by a sense of despair that was recently revealed to be much more severe and widespread than previously thought.
The concept of the "moody teen" has long been a staple of television, film and literature, but research has discovered a prevalent hopelessness that is far more pervasive, and potentially destructive, than mere teen angst.
According to a study that appeared in the July issue of the journal Pediatrics, about 15 percent of teenagers said they believed they only had a 50/50 chance of living to age 35, and those who thought they wouldn't live that long were much more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drug abuse, violence and unsafe sex.
A June 29 article on WebMD provided the following details about the study:
The researchers noted that the death rate was no higher among "hopeless" teens than during more optimistic ones during the seven years of the study, but experts have supported the importance of identifying which young people are at increased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors.
"Asking about this sense of fatalism is probably a pretty important component of one of the ways we can figure out who those kids at greater risk are," adolescent health expert Dr. Jonathan Klein of the University of Rochester said in a June 29 Associated Press article.
Keeping Teens Safe
Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power. But what type of power can parents derive from their knowledge about teen risk-taking? Does knowing what (drinking alcohol, taking drugs, having unprotected sex and engaging in violence) and why (incomplete brain development, increased fatalism) empower parents to prevent dangerous teen behaviors?
Prevent? Probably not. But lessen the likelihood? Many parenting experts say "yes."
The following pieces of advice can reduce the odds of a problem, while increasing the likelihood that you will notice potential problems before they grow beyond your ability to help:
If your child's unacceptable behavior has already exceeded your ability to control, don't hesitate to reach out to the many experts, agencies and organizations that can provide your family with the help you are looking for.
From attending a few sessions with a school counselor to participating in outpatient therapy to enrolling in a therapeutic boarding school or residential wilderness program, your child (and, by extension, your family) have a number of options. Find the approach that works best for you, and take the steps you need to ensure that your child has the best possible future.