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The Truth About Adolescents And Risk Taking

When we watch a young toddler teeter around and make questionable decisions, we rarely wonder if they're a risk-taker. Of course, there are those few brave babies who seem to push their limitations more than others. Generally speaking, we're aware that our younger children are not taking risks because they haven't entirely developed the executive and cognitive brain function yet to know what risk might be. Until the age of 25, our children's brains are growing and developing, continuing to absorb information in order to create knowledge.  Watching our adolescents, on the other hand, we can get a knot in our stomach, a hitch in our breathing, a tightness in our chest, and a rush of adrenaline wondering how they could be so reckless . Our adolescents are largely aware of what is right or wrong, what is dangerous or safe, what is a smart or a risky choice. Though they are largely aware, they are not entirely aware- which might be at the fault of their brain development.

The Myth Of The Adolescent Brain

For years, parents and science alike have tried to find a place to point responsibility for the irresponsibility of adolescents. From one study to the next, the opinion has changed as to whether or not reckless risk-taking in adolescents is a behavioral or neurological issue. Whereas some studies have come close to finding causation in brain structure and brain function, other studies have affirmed that adolescents might just behave differently. 

Adolescents' Brains Are Fine Compared To Children, New Study Says

Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences published an article that reviewed the likelihood of adolescents to take risks as compared to younger children. Reviewing other analyses of laboratory studies on the adolescent brain, the meta-analysis found that the myth of the out-of-control teenage brain as Penn Today put it, is just a myth.  Adolescents on average are no more risk-taking than children and in many cases are less so…In fact, when adolescents can decide to opt out of taking a risk and choose a safe option instead, they take the safe option more often than children do, the article explains. 

Compared To Adults, Adolescents Act Differently

According to Penn Today , The authors note that despite the lack of evidence for adolescents being inherently more risk-taking than younger children, they are more likely to take risks than adults, which is and is not a surprise.  Whether or not the adolescent brain is intrinsically prone to risk-taking, the adolescent brain hasn't had the same kind of life experience in the same kind of entirety that the adult brain has. Adults can still make questionable choices but are more likely to make more informed choices. Adolescents haven't had the innumerable repeat lessons and experiences adults have had. Logically put, there is a lifetime of information and knowledge that the adult brain has collected which the adolescent brain simply hasn't had the chance to.

Why We Need To Watch Our Adolescents

Though we do not have an answer as to whether or not the adolescent brain does or does not function differently in regards to risk-taking, many adolescents do still test their risk limits. Nature or nurture, neurology or environment, culture or chemical response, there are some areas of adolescent risk-taking which raise an exceptional flag and issues we can look for specifically.

Impulsivity, Not Risk-Taking, Should Be A Concern

Impulsivity is also common in adolescents and can go hand in hand with risk-taking. What stands out about impulsivity versus risk-taking is where impulsivity comes from, as well as where it can lead. To be impulsive is a natural human experience. To be especially impulsive can be a result of a mental health issue that can lead to risky decision making regarding substance use. Innumerable studies have pointed out that impulsivity in adolescents can be an indicator of future substance use issues. Risk-taking can include calculation and disregard for safety. Impulsivity does not include the same decision-making process. In fact, the nature of impulsivity is to think quickly, without regard to consequence- a chronic characteristic of addiction itself. 

How We Can Help Our Adolescents

The occasional risk is healthy to take and can improve our sense of self, ability, as well as confidence. Regular reckless endangerment and impulsivity demonstrate a disregard for safety, security, and the fragile gift of life overall. If we notice a trend in our adolescents toward impulsive, reckless, risk-taking decisions, our earliest intervention is required to learn more. If our adolescent is turning toward mind-altering substances like drugs and alcohol as part of their risk-taking, they could be taking a bigger risk than they are aware of- the risk of becoming addicted. 

If you or an adolescent you know needs to get help for drug or alcohol abuse, Stonewater Adolescent Recovery Center can give you the guidance that you deserve. Establishing a strong network of family and community can reinforce practices for living substance free. Call us today to start living in your recovery: 662-598-4214