Wondering why your teen is so emotional and risk taking?
- Your teenager is neither crazy nor stupid. No matter how emotional they are; No matter how much they seem to be making poor choices. There is a very good reason why teens are the way they are. It is not their fault or yours. It’s biology.
- Adolescence brings about a surge in brain growth. But the dilemma is that different brain areas grow at different rates. The novelty and fear region (Amygdala) and the reward region (Nucleus Accumbens), in the adolescent brain, mature earlier than the region involved in calming and self-control (Prefrontal cortex). Fortunately the Prefrontal Cortex does catch up, so that eventually your teen calms down more and their risk taking fades. However the process occurs slowly over time, continuing on into your child’s late 20’s.
Teens can get really anxious as a result of their overactive Amygdala
- It is perfectly normal when in a new situation to have a bit of a fear response. That’s because the Amygdala releases a spurt of adrenaline when we are in unfamiliar circumstances; such as meeting a group of new people or going to a new place. It is the Adrenaline that activates our fear response, which can include feelings of dread, tense muscles, sweaty palms, racing heart, and rapid breathing.
- The adrenaline puts us on the alert for possible danger. It also enhances memory, which is how we can learn about new situations, most especially what might be dangerous about them.
- In most cases, once the new situation becomes familiar and nothing bad has happened, the fear subsides. Not only does the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) calm the fear, it also actually un-learns the fear response for that situation.
- What makes a teen more vulnerable to possibly developing anxiety issues is that they are going through a surge of new brain growth, that causes them to have the combination of an over active Amygdala and under active Prefrontal Cortex. As a result, they have a heightened fear response to novelty, but an impaired un-learning of the fear response. As a result, even if a danger has passed, or no danger even occurred, a teen may be left with residual feelings of anxiety.
- Fortunately, not every teen develops an anxiety disorder. However, up to 20 percent may. If you are interested in learning more about teens and anxiety here is an interesting article by the psychiatrist Richard Friedman, Why Teens Act Crazy.
What can you do about your teen’s emotionality and risk taking?
- There is a lot you can do about it, but it may not be what you think. As much as you wish your wisdom could ‘teach kids’ not to be this way- it just doesn’t work that way. For example, you can’t tell your anxious child that the situation is perfectly safe and to not to feel anxious.
- It helps to be more understanding, empathic and accepting of how your teenager is acting. While this may not stop their distressing emotions or prevent their behavior, it at least maintains a sense of connection and makes them feel that are are not judging them.
- Keep in mind, your teen’s emotionality and concerns about fitting in with their peers are harder on them than they are on you.
- Keep in mind without some risk taking, your child will not have the guts to become an independently functioning adult.
- Keep in mind, their risk-taking is nature’s way of ensuring that every new generation has its innovators and pioneers, so that culture and society progresses.
- Try as much as possible to avoid judgement or shaming your child, because it can cause a whole host of other issues.
More you can do: Share your wisdom, but do it carefully
- Your child does benefit from your wise input and advice. Sharing wisdom is valuable, but only if you do it with sensitivity to their feelings and to their stage of development.
- Don’t blame, shame or ‘name call’ your child, no matter how upsetting their behavior is. That only makes kids defensive and more likely to shut their ears to what you are saying.
- Also, because of their enhanced emotionality, they are more sensitive to negative input. Therefore, when you do share, make sure to ‘own it’ as your perspective or your opinion. Don’t label it as the truth or the right way. Remember your teen is trying to separate and learn to think for themselves. If you push too much on how you think they should behave, they are a lot more likely to push back and not listen to you.
- Listen to how your teen thinks about a situation One way to improve your child’s ability to regulate their emotions and to develop good judgement is to ask them what they think about a situation and be a good listener when they tell you about it. It turns out that the more you listen respectfully, the more confident they feel about handling difficult situations and also the more likely they are to listen to you.
The good news is that your teen values your input.
- Teens do internalize your good ideas and hold onto them. It keeps them feeling safer and more connected to you. They also may call upon it in a pinch, when peers are pressuring them to do something they don’t want to do.
- But teenagers have their pride. They may take in what you say, but not let you know about it. No matter how terrific your advice or opinions, most typically teens will neither thank you nor give you credit for being right or smart. You just have to trust that your words got inside them. You also have to try your best to not feel too hurt or rejected by their failure to appreciate how helpful and clever you are.