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Teenagers' Risky Choices Linked to Brain Development

PHOTO: Dr. Laurence Steinberg will discuss his research into teen risk-taking and brain development at the upcoming annual conference of Teenwise Minnesota. Courtesy of Steinberg.
PHOTO: Dr. Laurence Steinberg will discuss his research into teen risk-taking and brain development at the upcoming annual conference of Teenwise Minnesota. Courtesy of Steinberg.
April 24, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. - A person is apt to make more risky decisions as a teenager than at any other time in life, and research shows that's partly because of neurological reasons.

In early adolescence, said Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, the brain systems that process and evaluate rewards are much more easily aroused.

"This makes teenagers much more sensitive to the rewards in their environment, and therefore likely to do something in order to get a reward," he said, "even if that something might involve danger."

At the same time, Steinberg said, the system in the brain that helps regulate impulse control still is developing.

"This period during middle adolescence is a time when teenagers are driven to engage in sensation-seeking and exciting and novel activities, but don't yet have the brain systems in place to regulate those impulses," he said. "That's what we think helps explain why they take so many risks."

One way to reduce the number of risky decisions a teen makes, whether it's related to sexual activity or behind the wheel, is to try to keep them out of those situations as much as possible, Steinberg said.

It's also important for parents to share their values and expectations with their teens - even if it doesn't seem as though they're listening, said Judith Kahn, executive director of Teenwise Minnesota.

"Young people are really good at telling parents that they're not exactly relevant in their lives, but that's their job," she said. "They're needing to separate and develop themselves as individuals. They may show us a face that says, 'It doesn't matter' but they are listening. They are listening, and it does make a difference."

Kahn, Steinberg and others will discuss the links between brain development and risky teen behaviors - and how to use that information in developing new strategies - next week at the annual conference of Teenwise Minnesota.

More information is online at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - MN