Adolescent boys and risk-taking behaviour go together like mothers and sleepless nights, am I right?

I always thought my son was too intelligent, too well-adjusted and sufficiently able to stand back from peer pressure to engage in risky behaviour. That was until last year when he had settled into his early teens.

His father and I noticed him talking about, then flirting with, some crazy-brave behaviour in which some of his peers were engaging. It wasn’t anti-social but it was, of course, being shared on social media.

So why do cherished and seemingly sensible boys like him have such a microscopic self-preservation instinct?

And what can parents do about it?

It’s helpful, first, to look at the science of adolescent boys’ brains.

In an attempt to understand what drives our sons’ risk-taking behaviour, I explored some research published in Developmental Neuroscience. In this research, scientists conducted 19 studies across areas including psychology, neurochemistry, brain imaging, clinical neuroscience and neurobiology.

Their research revealed:

  • Teenage boys show more activity in the region of the brain that controls emotions when confronted with threat. This was different to the response of children and adults, especially men.
  • Teenage boys were mostly unaffected by the threat of punishment but displayed heightened sensitivity to the possibility of large gains from gambling. This means they are likely to understate the potential negatives and overstate the possible gains when they are faced with a decision.
  • A molecule that is critical for developing fear of risky situations is less active in adolescent boy brains.

In short, as Perth psychologist, coach and mum of two, Dr Marny Lishman says, adolescent boys are “hot heads”. Dr Lishman says their brains are still developing right through to their 20s, and because adolescent boys’ prefrontal cortex in particular is still not fully formed, they seem to be quite emotionally driven. This means their actions are often controlled by the way they feel in the moment.

In uncovering the neurobiological basis of behaviour, the Developmental Neuroscience study highlighted the benefit of a more proactive response to our teenage boys rather than reacting with punishment.

In line with these findings, Dr Lishman has found in her busy practice that there are some key strategies parents can adopt to discourage potentially dangerous behaviour before it starts:

  • Share stories about your own childhood and others you know about. This includes sharing with sons the consequences of good decisions and bad decisions - without shaming and blaming them about their own behaviour. “Sharing narratives is how we informally learn and they’re easier for people to remember,” Dr Lishman says.

I certainly remember my son’s saucer-eyed face when I told him stories from my own teenage years. I seriously doubt that a typical lecture about drinking too many standard drinks would have had the same effect.

  • When it comes to social media, Dr Lishman says it’s about building your child’s confidence and self-esteem so that they are less influenced by outside forces.

For me this means showing some interest in the social media my son shows me when he shoves his phone 1cm in front of my eyeballs, and suggesting he question the accuracy, wisdom and usefulness of the content. In other words, resisting the urge to angrily blurt out: “Don’t you have better things to do than look at that rubbish!?”

  • Alongside keeping an eye on social media use, Dr Lishman recommends getting to know your teenager’s friends and having them spend time at your home. This will give you a chance to suss out your son’s friends and the influence they may exercise on him.
  • Finally, Dr Lishman says that being authoritative is key to preventing of some behaviours. “Lots of love and support is vital, but boundaries need to be in place as to what you think is appropriate for your child,” she says.

Encouraging boys to take risks within a safe environment is also important. Organised sport is a relatively easy and popular way to allow boys to enjoy physical challenges. To mix things up, we add some water sports, organised parkour and camping during the holidays, but those choices will depend on individual interests.

What I’ve learnt from my own experience and that of friends is that parental influence over teenage boys - and teenage girls for that matter - doesn’t come from harsh punishment and efforts to control, which can lead to even more risky behaviour and rebellion. That is unless, of course, the circumstances are extreme. Additionally, draconian attempts at control can drive behaviour that avoids consequences, such as secrecy or lying.

Instead influence comes from being someone who will listen without shaming. In my case, I let myself have a laugh with my son about an aspect of his behaviour, something we have since bonded over. But that was after a very serious, straight-talking warning about the possible consequences of his actions as well as laying down some firm boundaries.

As psychologist Karen Young wrote on the Hey Sigmund website, the drive to take risks allows teens to explore and experiment with the world. From this drive, if it’s monitored with some care, can come resilience, resourcefulness and creativity that can lead them to healthy passions and becoming a well-adjusted adult.

References: 

Developmental Neuroscience, Teenage Brains: Think Different? Editors: Casey, B.J., Kosofsky, B.E. and Bhide, P.G.