By Dhara Thakar Meghani
Ever find yourself in utter disbelief when you encounter your 14-year old (who aces her geometry tests) straining to climb through a narrow window to meet her boyfriend past curfew?
Or the shock you feel when you get a call from the principal’s office informing you your ‘responsible’ teenager was caught smoking marijuana in the boys’ bathroom at lunch with three of his friends? These and similar scenarios are likely to flood most parents with a host of emotions including anger, concern, and disappointment, but deep-seated confusion might be the winner: “He’s so smart – why would he even think about doing something so harmful?”
Rest assured, there are several researchers who have also acknowledged the ironic disconnect between adolescents’ recognition of risky behavior and what they actually do. Interestingly, rarely is it true that adolescents are simply unaware of the associated risks with specific behaviors; rather, they are just as likely as full-fledged adults to point out it’s probably a bad idea to attempt a midnight escape through a high, squeaky window right next to their parents’ bedroom. So what exactly is going on?
The popular answer has been that adolescence is a developmental transition colored by the inevitable increase of risk-taking behavior, coupled with the blatant lack of sound decision-making just before leaping into unwise situations¹. Young adults often erroneously think of themselves as invincible, underestimating risk to favor the thrill of their growing independence.
These are plausible explanations for ill-conceived plans that with a little more logic might have been canceled altogether and saved parents and teens from much grief. However, they don’t paint the entire picture of why adolescents “say” and “do” differently. Not surprisingly, much has to do with the influence of their peers.
Let’s take a closer look using a prime example of this contradictory pattern — teenage driving behavior. Young drivers are at highest risk of car crashes within the first six months after getting their license², often due to reasons such as reckless driving, distractions, and inattention; yet teenagers can gauge risky driving behavior (e.g., speeding, using a mobile phone while driving, and simultaneously reaching for objects while behind the wheel) just as well as adults.¹
Psychologist Alison Gopnik³ suggests many accidents are caused by intentional risk-taking motivated by the possibility of a social reward. The presence of encouraging peers who promise they will consider a daring driver bolder, braver, and thus “cooler” often ups the ante and may push an otherwise intelligent teenager to take a risk that she might not have taken on her own.
New research in this area suggests parents (and policies, eventually) may not necessarily need to wait passively (with fingers crossed) for this rebellious transition to pass, but that they can help prepare teenagers to privilege logic over hudspah. Additionally, Pradhan and colleagues4 have demonstrated success with training novice drivers to improve their attention on the road.
As parents, it never hurts to think about guidelines to talk with your new driver about that can promote safer decisions once s/he obtains that coveted driver’s license. Here are some ways you might start:
• In the beginning, consider limiting your teenager’s use of the car to certain times of the day and for particular purposes (e.g., anytime before sunset and primarily for school or errands).
• Always ask who else will be in the car when your child is the driver or is being picked up.
• Consider setting rules about the number of peers your child is allowed to ride with when there isn’t an adult present.
• Maintain good communication with your child’s friends’ parents
Keep in mind that your teenager will certainly make mistakes and learn some things the hard way–and will need your support then as much as he did in his younger days.
Dhara Thakar Meghani will never forget the time she scratched her father’s mini-van when backing out of a parking lot soon after she got her driver’s license…or the incredible relief she felt when learning her father was more concerned about her safety (of course) than the actual car. She invites you to share a teenage blunder of your own below!
¹Steinberg, L. (2004). Risk taking in adolescence. What changes and why? Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1021, 1-8.
²Lee, S.E., Simons-Morton, B.G., Kauer, S.E., Ouimet, M.C., & Dingus, T.A., (2011). Naturalistic assessment of novice teenage crash experience. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 43, 1472-1479.
³Gopnik, A. (2011, January 28) What’s wrong with the teenage mind? The Wall Street Journal, Retrieved April 25, 2012, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100014240529702038065045771813514865589 .html
4Pradhan, A.K. et al. (2011). The effects of focused attention training on the duration of novice drivers’ glances inside the vehicle. Ergonomics, 54, 917-931.