What Causes Teens to Make Bad Decisions?

Health & Wellness on 03.01.12
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What makes a teenager lose their cool and potentially do something drastic? When we see horrible tragedies involving teens such as the recent shooting in Ohio or a car wreck that could have easily been avoided, we often think it's because teens have poor decision making capabilities, but a recent article on Discovery by Sheila Eldred compiles research that proves this theory wrong and takes a closer look at what the real reasons are.  Neuroscientist B.J. Casey of the Weill Cornell Medical College says insists it is not the decision making that is the problem, but the decision making under pressure or in the heat of the moment that can cause outbursts.

What the Research Says

The research shows that when teens are faced with a decision in an emotionally stale scenario, they are just as good at making decisions as adults, but once an emotional aspect enters the picture such as the reward of having friends think they're cool for doing something, they become less capable of making the best decision.

"Basically, they can make pretty good judgments and decisions in cold situations that don't involve emotions or rewards, but in the heat of the moment their decisions tend to fall apart," Casey said.

An example of this behavior included watching teens play video games. When the teens thought no one was watching they would go through a red light at the same rate as adults, but when their peers were watching them, they were more likely to blow through the red light to impress their peers.

The reason for this behavior is that teens were found to use the amygdale part of the brain which is responsible for gut reactions, whereas the frontal cortex section of the brain is the part of the brain that considers the consequences of their actions. The teen years are when humans learn how to go from having their parents act as their frontal cortex to using it on their own, and because of this it's necessary for the teens to step out of their comfort zone to "test the waters."

How to Help Your Teen from Making Poor Decisions

When the teens do have an outburst, the trick according to Eldred's article is allowing them to have a cooling off period, and then being empathetic to the fact that something went wrong while still giving them boundaries as to what is an acceptable way to handle it.

The bottom line is that in order for teens to learn how to handle their rage, they need to be drawn out of their comfort zone to start learning to use their frontal cortex and then have a parent or adult that is setting boundaries for them. Otherwise they may be more likely to take extreme actions that can have devastating effects.

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