Teens Like Living on the Edge and Other Excitement

Whether it’s skydiving, speeding, or staying out late at night, adolescents’ attraction to risks is
no coincidence.  Puberty and changes in the adolescent brain motivate teens to seek both new
experiences and also excitement.  Teens perceive risk differently than adults do, and they are
more enticed by the challenge than by the reward or outcome.  The ‘good judgment’ area of
the brain that helps teens to control impulses is still growing and maturing.  This means that
teens may not anticipate the consequences of their actions.  Teens are also much more likely to
take risks in the presence of other teens.

Chemical changes occurring in the adolescent brain also contribute to risk-seeking behaviors.
The levels of serotonin and dopamine fluctuate in the adolescent brain.  Serotonin, a chemical
messenger in the brain, has a calming effect that helps to control impulsive behavior.  Dopamine
is part of the brain’s ‘feel good circuitry’ that gives a sense of well-being.  Taking risks can
elevate dopamine levels.

As a youth serving professional or healthcare provider, you can do a number of things to help
teens make good decisions, take positive risks, and become more independent, even in the face
of hormonal and chemical changes in the brain:

  • • Provide opportunities for novel, challenging experiences such as hiking, rock climbing,
  •   and other outdoor recreational activities.
  • • Encourage teens to stretch their boundaries and take healthy risks by engaging in
  •   positive activities in the community.  Performing on stage, giving a media interview,
  •   making a presentation, volunteering after a natural disaster, or building a shed with
  •   power tools can feel like risky endeavors for teens.  They are positive risks that also
  •   help teens strengthen and develop the prefrontal cortex and teach them to assess risks,
  •   consider consequences, and make tough decisions under pressure and in unfamiliar
  •   circumstances.
  • • Help teens to understand how the teen brain works and to identify the potential
  •   consequences of taking unhealthy risks, such as skipping school, driving recklessly, using
  •   drugs or alcohol, or fighting.  Coach them on how to avoid these dangerous risks.
  • • Healthcare providers should ask teens directly about the following areas:  sexual,
  •   physical, and/or emotional violence in their lives, including dating violence; the use of
  •   alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, including prescriptions and anabolic steroids;
  •   unprotected sex; depression; and thoughts about suicide.  Equally important, healthcare
  •   providers should praise teens for engaging in healthy, positive, and self-protecting
  •   behaviors, such as eating well, getting adequate sleep, participating in sports, etc.  Finally,
  •   healthcare providers should encourage teens to take an active part in decisions that
  •   affect their health and healthcare.