Adolescence is a time of brain development. The risk and reward centres are highly developed. The teenage brain is programmed to relate closely to peer influence. No matter how well we train our kids around risk-taking, in the company of teen peers they are far more likely to take risks than they are on their own.
This is a normal part of adolescent brain development, but we still, somehow, expect kids not to behave this way.
Working with youth through restorative justice, we too frequently find that young girls are getting into trouble at the direction of older boys and men. The need for approval, the need to feel attractive, the need to be liked, the dominance of the risk taking and reward centres of the brain over the still "under construction” pre-frontal cortex, where the brakes are, seem to trump all sense of safety, dignity and even common sense.
We have seen that boys have directed girls to steal, to trespass, to commit mischief and other crimes, to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, to take risks with drugs, to have sex when they don’t really want to or are too impaired to resist.
Males are greater risk takers than girls, especially in late adolescence. Girls have gone along, only to find that they have been raped, are pregnant, are getting arrested, or have developed an unmanageable addiction. When asked what they were thinking, they thought it would be cool, or, seeking the reward of peer approval, they obeyed without question, even when they hardly knew the boy. Under the terms of the law, it doesn’t matter who “told” someone to do something, it’s the someone who does it that pays. Girls are being set up.
Teens will do outlandish things to please their peers. Being around peers changes the way the brain processes rewards. The adolescent brain will select the short-term benefit of risky choices over the long-term value of safer alternatives. Unfortunately, this is the reality.
The teenage brain is also a brain that is equipped to learn quickly, if not to think consequentially. It is a brain that needs new experiences in order to learn, and needs an element of risk in order to engage and find reward. It is a brain that is changing every day, every week. It is shaped by experiences. It is a brain that is singularly vulnerable to addiction, which is also a form of learning. The teenage brain becomes addicted “harder, stronger, longer and faster”* than the adult brain, and can be permanently damaged.
As adults, we all need to help. We need to provide positive opportunities for teen risk-taking: supervised activities at school, part time jobs and community service opportunities. We need to provide positive role modeling, a substance-free environment, a listening ear, and a strong connectedness to each one.
Keep them busy, healthy, connected and supported. The whole brain will come….later.
*Dr. Frances Jensen, “The Teenage Brain