When you see adolescents taking risks—whether its soaring off of bike ramps with no helmet or trying drugs they know nothing about—it’s easy to assume that young adults simply think they’re indestructible. Why else would they throw caution to the wind again and again? As Jess Shatkin notes in his book BORN TO BE WILD, the adolescent brain is wired to take risks. But he also notes that there are many things society, peer groups, and parents can do for their children to help reduce this risk-taking behavior. Here are few of Shatkin’s recommendations:
Rethink praise. Parents often focus on the negative behavior of their children because those are the things that stand out. We are evolutionarily designed to identify the threats and risks in our environment, and for parents, this translates into recognizing bad behavior. Unfortunately, this often means that parents forget to praise their children. Positive reinforcement is very important as it tells your children how to behave instead of how not to—like constant scolding does. And remember to be specific when praising. Instead of saying, “You’re such a good brother,” say, “I like how you helped your sister with her homework.”
Be present. The more we know about our children, the fewer risks they tend to take. Studies show that adolescents with strong peer support groups and attentive families simply take fewer harmful risks. This is not to shame any parent about their busy work schedule, but rather to challenge parents everywhere to make the time to chat, take a walk, or even play video games with their children. They will feel attended to and, who knows, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about your kids!
Reframe rewards. Let’s face it—the adolescent brain focuses on reward, so it’s okay to capitalize on this, so long as you take the right approach. Reward isn’t simply giving your child what they want—to go out with friends, eat dessert before dinner, etc. Reward is helping them see the benefits of making good choices. So instead of saying, “If you don’t study hard, you won’t get into a good college,” or promising they can go outside after they study, say something like, “Study hard in school so that you can apply to any college you like.” Small adjustments in your wording will highlight benefits instead of instilling fear or giving instant gratification.