It is probably no surprise to you that teens and young adults take greater risks than any other age group.
In fact, you may look back and cringe at your own adolescent risk-taking.
And if you’re feeling a sense of dread about teen safety, you’re not alone.
Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, MD, MPH, Vice Chair for Education and Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the NYU School of Medicine, explains “this has been a big concern for parents and schools and society for a long time because if you look at crime rates, if you look at pregnancy, if you look at the kind of difficulties and when they start, they usually begin in the teen years or the young adult years…
“It goes way up between 13 and 19, numbers go up, up, up, up. They level off and drop a little bit, but they don’t really drop until mid- to late 20s. and so this is a big concern amongst all of us in society and has been for a long time.”
We recently caught up with Dr. Shatkin to talk about teen safety, and he shares with us why teenagers are such enormous risk-takers and what parents can do to minimize the risk.
After reading this, you may want to check out Dr. Shatkin’s groundbreaking book: “Born to Be Wild: Why Teens take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe.”
Kids Don’t Think They’re Invincible
The long-held assumption by parents is that kids hit their teens and suddenly think they’re invincible, that nothing bad can happen to them.
Dr. Shatkin explains that that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“When researchers finally got to really ask kids about why they take risks and what they must be thinking, we found out the kids actually believe they’re much more vulnerable to bad things happening than they actually are. So, there is some optimistic bias, some kids think they won’t get hurt, but most kids believe the risk is very, very high and somehow maybe they have a way around it…
So the take-home point first is that they don’t take risks because they think they’re invincible, most of them think they’re highly vulnerable.
But as we’ve gotten to know the brain better, and this is really the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve learned an awful lot about why they take risks. So with that preamble, the real reasons adolescents take risks is it’s how their brain’s built. It’s how their neurotransmitters are working. It’s how their hormones are working. It’s lot about peers and the peer effects.
And these things add up to make sort of an evolutionary mandate for young people to take risks.
And I use the title Born to Be Wild [in my book] because I wanted to make the point, that, in fact, we’re fighting nature to some degree, to stop our kids from taking risks. They’re built and designed to take risks.
They’re the fastest they’ve ever been. They heal from injury better than they ever will again. They tolerate pain better than ever again. They tolerate extremes of temperature, hot and cold, better than ever again. They heal faster, their immune response is better.
Yet, they die at rates that are many, many times higher than they did before and after they hit adolescence. And so, this is the adolescent paradox we talked about.
And I believe this is so because evolution has essentially built adolescents to be really strong, really fast, really capable, and really risky so that they will flee the nest, go find new watering holes, go find new mates, go find new food sources. And pass on the genes that they have.
So Mother Nature, in its own sort of heartless way, sacrifices thousands to save millions. And we’ve been built to do that…
It served us as a species years ago to run across the Savannah to find new food source. It no longer serves us to drive 100 miles an hour on the freeway in a race against our friends after we had two beers, or worse, 10 beers.”
So what can you, Mom and Dad, do to increase your teen’s safety and reduce the amount of risk that your teenager does take?
Start Having the Tough Conversations
“It’s incumbent upon us to actually be a little bit more engaged as parents, to ask more questions, to be more involved. This is called Dinner Table MBA. Well, what happens with a lot of parents, as their kids age they stop asking questions because the conversations get really difficult.
The conversation’s around sex and drugs and drinking.
Do you really want to know if your fifteen-year-old’s been drunk or smoked weed, yet? Do you want to know? And if you do know, are you ready to take that on and have that conversation with them? And what are you going to say when they say ‘Hey, how much did you smoke as a kid, or did you smoke?’
So these are hard conversations for parents to have, but we know that when parents have these conversations the kids see them as reliable sources of information, people who aren’t afraid to talk with them, and they tell their parents more. And if you don’t talk to your kids about this stuff, they’ll get it elsewhere. They’ll get it online, they’ll get it from other friends, they’ll get it from other friends’ parents, whatever it is. So we want our parents to be involved, but the answers aren’t always easy to come by.
Using Statistics (But NOT Percentages)
“Because kids already think the risks are so high, they think the risk of pregnancy from one-time unprotected intercourse is like 95%, even though it’s not nearly that high, but that doesn’t stop them. They still go ahead and engage in unprotected intercourse, so telling them statistics isn’t terribly helpful.
If you want to draw on statistics, then talk less about a percent, because it’s so difficult for most people even think about what a percent really means or how to calculate a percent… So what we really want to do, talking statistics, is to talk about one in 10, one-in-five. It’s a little bit easier. One two three four five.
If the kid tells you that the risk of pregnancy from unprotected intercourse is 50%, again, an inflated number, but if they tell you it’s 50%, then you say, ‘Wow that means if you have unprotected sex twice, you’re definitely going to get pregnant. That’s one in two. So it happens today and Thursday and, man, you are pregnant.’
So speaking about it in that way is a little bit more effective than speaking about it in terms of percentage.”
“Using analogies, talking to your kids about Russian Roulette.
You know, ‘Is it wise to play Russian Roulette? Would you do it for a million dollars? Well, that’s a one in six chance you’re going to die. One in six. You do it six times, you’re going to die, no question about it. Or be maimed for life. Is it worth, therefore, driving down the highway at 80 miles an hour or driving drunk for the opportunity to impress your peers?’
Walking Them Through the Possible Circumstances
“So you say to them, ‘So, what happens if you get your girlfriend pregnant?’
‘Ah, that’s not going to happen. Or I’m not really…Whatever. I mean…You know…’
‘What happens? Tell me what happens? Let’s just say, out of the blue… I get it, you don’t think it’s going to happen, but let’s just say she gets pregnant, what happens then? Do you stay together? Does she stay on the gymnastics team? Do you go to prom with her? Does she have the baby? How do you and she feel about abortion? How does her family feel about abortion? If you do have the baby, does she stay in school? Does she raise the kid? Can you raise the kid? Are you now Daddy?’
You kind of have these conversations with them.
Again, we are built to be able to have kids at 13-14 years of age because that’s when we’re super healthy, so why not have a baby then? But, we are not mature enough for it.
When your lifespan is 25 years, it makes sense having the baby at 13 or 14… Not that way anymore, so we need our kids to be more responsible. So these kinds of conversations help. They help kids get more grounded.
Be an Authoritative Parent
“This style of parenting is loving, warm and connected and still has rules and regulations and consequences. As opposed to permissive parenting, which is so open and easy, the kids kind of lose their regard for the parents in terms of their authority. Or authoritarian, ‘Why? Because I said!’ You know that’s not good parenting either, but these things shake out…
“That authoritative style leads to kids who are better students. Less likely to get pregnant. Less likely use drugs. More likely to go to college. Less likely to be obese. Community. Just so many gains come from parents who are directive, kind and supportive of their kids.
Loving, present, responsive and lays down the rule.
‘No curfew is midnight, and that’s what I said, it’s midnight. That’s when you’re home, and if you’re home at 12:10, then there’s a punishment or payment to be made for that. It’s not just loosy goosey. There’s a way that it goes. Unless they call because they can’t be on time, but that’s an exception to the rule. There are ways to work every issue.
But what you’re trying to do is be very clear. Lay out your expectations. And we do this by using positive reinforcement, giving effective command, selective ignoring, using reward programs, scheduling of kids’ lives so we know what’s going on, they know what’s going on. We know where they’re at most the time. And finally, you know, we have to set down limits, consequences and punishments.
Make Time for Your Kids
“You really need to sit with them. You need to be involved in a dinner table discussion every night, or most nights, or many nights, where you sit and you listen, and it’s not a 10-minute dinner…
It’s a ‘How was your day? What went well today? Here, let me tell you about what happened with me and my boss.’
And they get to learn about the world, understand how things are.
My kids know, we sit at the dinner table, it’s at least an hour, hour-and-a-half sometimes. We’re sitting there because we just get into these rich conversations and no one wants to get up. And so those are really lovely moments and you build that.
You build that by having an after-dinner reading hour. Kids have their homework to do, or just some reading to do, and you don’t get on your phone or your laptop and watch TV or whatever.
You pick a book, too, and you sit on the couch with them, and your family dog or cat is there and everybody has a reading half hour. There’s no media. Phones are put away. Computer’s put away. Maybe it’s an hour. And that builds a connection.
Then after that, everybody has something to talk about. You read to your kids at night. You know, all the good stuff. It’s all very straightforward in terms of building a relationship, but the more you spend time with your kids the more connected you are, the more they’re likely to tell you things as they age.
You’re involved as an assistant coaching the soccer team, and if you’re not the assistant coach or the coach you go out and watch the game. You don’t miss a game. Or maybe you miss one in ten, but it becomes a regular thing.
And then afterward, you can get to know their friends. You all go out for lunch. He brings his buddy over the house and they run around the yard. You put out some sandwiches so you can get to know the parents.”
Listen to a clip of the interview here:
Summary on Teen Safety and Reducing Risky Behavior
So, to summarize what we can do about teen safety, here are Dr. Shatkin’s best strategies for minimizing the risk your kids will take as teenagers and young adults:
- Be an authoritative parent, someone who is loving and connected and still has rules and regulations and consequences
- Don’t shy away from having difficult conversations with teens
- Be a part of your kids’ lives, openly communicating with them starting at a young age, attending their events and knowing who their friends are
While we have to deal with the reality that we cannot guarantee the safety of our teenage kids, we can make choices that promote their safety.
And being a loving, authoritative parent who is actively involved in our kids’ lives has been proven to go a long way towards that goal.