My Kid Did What? High Risk Behavior And Adolescents

Dr. David J. Holcombe
Dr. David J. Holcombe

Every parent dreads the call from a neighbor, friend, school official or police officer telling them their child has committed some outrageous, high-risk act.  Whether it be substance abuse, driving while distracted or drunk, truancy, or pregnancy, all such behaviors seems incomprehensible to the adult mind.  Yet, they occur every day by the thousands.  In the best of conditions, the results may be a reprimand or simple medical intervention; in the worst of cases, the result is death.


Why, then, does this high risk behavior occur?  Why does the United States have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world (39/1,000 live births), with over a million girls getting pregnant each year?  Why do 23% of high school students report binge drinking within the last two weeks?  Why do 35/100,000 young people die year from unintentional (70% motor vehicle accidents) and intentional injuries (around 44% MVAs and 20% homicides).


It is estimated that over 60% of teens engage in some sort of dangerous behavior every year.  Many of these activities have been the target of aggressive educational prevention campaigns, both in schools and in the general media.  Has there been any improvement?  The answer is yes, but not enough.  There has been a decline in births to teens over the last decade in all races.  There has also been a reduction in teens that drink and drive.  Yet the problems still persist despite significant educational attempts.  Why?


The answer to this perplexing dilemma lies in the nature of the teenage brain.  At the same time that young people are becoming physically mature, enough to engage in sexual activity and drive, there is a lag in the development of their frontal lobe (the anterior portion of the brain).  That part of the brain is responsible for judgment and impulse control.  It allows young people to refrain from risky behavior (with immediate gratification) in deference to delayed gratification because of perceived long-term benefits.  An example might be a decision to refrain from getting pregnant because child rearing could interfere with completion of an education necessary for a better, more highly paid and responsible job.


The frontal lobe develops fully from late adolescence into the early twenties, a time when most parents will agree that adolescent behavior mysteriously improves.  In fact, there is no mystery, just neurobiology.  There may have been some evolutionary primate advantage to having young apes take the risks of establishing new ape colonies.  But that advantage has long since disappeared.  Unreasoned risk-taking offers little advantage and a multiple of real problems.


What then is the solution to this neuro-biological discrepancy?  It is impossible and undesirable to lock adolescents up from 13 to 25 years of age, a time when much important socialization takes place.  What can be done is threefold.  First, educate adolescents both at school and at home in the consequences of high risk behaviors.  Second, engage in role playing exercises that ingrain better decision making into young people.  And third, try, as much as possible, to reduce exposure to circumstances where adolescents can get into trouble, something which requires parental discretion and supervision.  Without all three components, success will be limited.  With all three components, there is no guarantee, but a better chance of risk reduction.  So rather than saying “My kid did what?” after the fact, give adolescents real facts beforehand, role play high-risk scenarios, and keep your kids out of obviously risky environments.