The angel and the devil on the shoulders of your teen

While I am still some seven years away from having a teenager of my own, I well remember being a teenager, and being occasionally asked by an exasperated parent, “What were you thinking?”

To which, as often as not, I replied, “I don’t know.” This was seldom seen as an acceptable answer.

Had I but been one of today’s fortunate teens, I could have bolstered my profession of ignorance with scientific evidence.

Meg Gerrard, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, recently analyzed 12 years of studies of adolescent risk-taking. Her conclusion: when kids tell their parents they don’t know what they were thinking when they did something risky, they’re telling the exact truth.

Her studies, of risky behaviors including smoking, the use of alcohol and/or drugs, and unsafe sex, have involved more than 10,000 youths from all over the United States.

“We’ve demonstrated that quite a bit of adolescent decision-making is not reasoned on–on any level,” she says. “It’s not because it’s motivated behavior, or they’ve thought about how much they want to do it. It’s because they just do it.”

Gerrard recently gave a presentation at the annual convention of the Association of Psychological Science in which she detailed what she calls “A Dual Process Approach to Adolescent Decision-Making.”

She says there are two ways humans process information to make decisions. They may reason things out and then decide that they will do something, or they may simply act on intuition. Most research on adolescents has been based on the idea that they make decisions based on reason, when in fact many risky behaviors are spur-of-the-moment impulses, usually a reaction to being in circumstances conducive to engaging in those behaviors–typically because they’re surrounded with friends or peers who are engaging in those behaviors. (Think parties that get out of control.)

“From a kid’s perspective, if you’re operating in this more reasoned, thoughtful mode–then you have the proverbial devil and the angel over your shoulder,” she says. “If you’re operating in the more experiential (impulsive) mode, then you don’t even know the angel is there…and the devil’s only saying, ‘This could be interesting.'”

Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, recently published an article saying much the same thing. He says the brain has two behavior-controlling mechanisms: the “cognitive-control” and “socioemotional” networks.

He notes that during adolescence both networks are maturing–but they mature at very different rates. The socioemotional system becomes more assertive during puberty, while the cognitive-control system strengthens more slowly and over a longer period of time, not fully maturing until the mid-20s “at least.” Worse, the socioemotional system kicks into high gear in the presence of peers or when emotions run high, overpowering the cognitive-control system, which is more likely to be in control when an adolescent is alone and not emotionally excited.

So even the best-raised, well-informed-of-the-risks teen may sometimes do something incredibly risky and stupid. Which has got to worry parents.

Fortunately, Gerrard said, the likelihood this impulsive mode will lead to risky behavior is based on the social images the kid in question has of kids who engage in that kind of behavior.

These images, Gerrard says, are “formed very early–we have evidence that they’re formed when kids are seven to eight years old–and it’s not that difficult to change them. Oftentimes kids who are not willing to engage in a risk behavior are not willing because they don’t have a favorable prototype (of someone engaging in that risk behavior).”

So her advice for parents?

“What I think most parents and most prevention programs try and do is get kids to think about the potential negative consequences before they engage in a behavior. That’s good, but it’s not enough,” she said. “It needs reinforcement and you need to change how they think about people who exhibit those risky behaviors.”

You can bet I’ll take that advice to heart as we raise our not-quite-halfway-to-being-a-teenager over the next few years.

And, hey, she’s already promised she’ll never paint her bedroom walls black, so I’d say we’ve got nothing to worry about…

…have we?

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