Impulsive Teenage Behavior: Why It Happens, What to Do

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Nov 2, 2016

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Every parent knows: Impulsive teenage behavior is practically a rite of passage; the teen years are the most impetuous years of a human’s lifetime. It stems from an immaturity, certainly, but not a willful immaturity; saying, “Grow up!” won’t help your teen navigate any problems she may find herself in.

But there are ways parents can harness and help develop teens’ better judgment – which they are capable of, despite any evidence to the contrary.

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Why is impulsive teenage behavior so common?

One of the functions of adolescence is actually to make a person (or any mammal) more impulsive. According to evolutionists, adolescence is a stage all about finding a mate and becoming independent. So when teens are confronted with a “should I or shouldn’t I?” situation, their brains tell them: “Just go for it! It’ll be great. Don’t worry about the consequences!”

In more scientific terms, this message comes from the brain’s limbic system, which undergoes rapid changes during adolescence. The limbic system is responsible for emotions and reward. Think of it like a puppy; it wants to investigate and immediately react to anything and everything in its environment – a hostile friend, an A+ paper, a cute dress, a sad song.

But a puppy needs a leash – in this case, an area in the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for impulse control. It’s what keeps someone from mouthing off to a teacher. Or picking up a pair of shoes and bolting from the shop. The limbic system might be saying, “Omg! These shoes! Must make them mine!” but the PFC is saying, “Dude. Make sure they fit. Make sure you can afford them. And make sure you pay for them.”

As important as it is for these two systems to work together, the PFC doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s. Meanwhile, the limbic system is maturing rapidly. Which can lead to impulsive behavior — which can be risky behavior that causes problems.

It also perpetuates impulsive teenage behavior. The striatum, an area within the limbic system, is responsible for reward feelings. When something positive occurs – like the approval of peers, buying a desired item, skipping chores to hang out with friends – the striatum releases a neurochemical called dopamine, or the “happy hormone.”

Everyone has different levels of dopamine in their brains, but during the teen years, happy chemicals are being fired at a rate and volume much higher than ever before – or ever will be after. Many people say nothing feels as good as it does when you’re a teen, and that’s because nothing actually does; you’ll never have as much natural dopamine in your body.

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This flood of happy hormones, however, keeps teens seeking activities and behaviors that can give them that dopamine high, which can cloud good decision-making. The brain’s “should I or shouldn’t I?” question is a little more complex, more like: “Should I not do this thing because it might have negative consequences, or should I do this thing that will make me really happy because it will release dopamine, oh sweet, sweet dopamine that nectar of life, it’s so good, give it to me!

In other words, your teen is a little dopamine fiend. A 2015 study bears this out: Adolescents and adults were given the option of either receiving 5 rupees in an hour, or 50 rupees in a month. Most teens opted for the smaller rewards sooner, while adults preferred to get the larger rewards later.

What this means is that, since the teenage brain is constantly craving more dopamine, it loves instant gratification, a preference that leads it to value gains over losses – or consequences.

How to curb impulsive teenage behavior?

Good news: These reward-seeking impulses can be harnessed for good. The same “happy hormone” reaction that rewards risky behavior in teenagers also rewards healthy positives; the brain releases dopamine in response to an A+ on an exam, too, or in response to a parent’s praise.

Offer rewards more than penalties.

The same skewed scale that causes teens to value gains over losses or consequences can be used to parents’ advantage: Try offering more rewards for good behavior (or avoided bad behavior), instead of taking something away as punishment for thoughtless, impulsive behavior. Teens will disproportionately value being awarded, say, an extra hour of television time than they will course-correct from losing an hour of television time.

Set clear limitations early.

When it comes to behaviors or activities you feel strongly about, set clear boundaries. Let your teen know these actions are not acceptable. Emphasizing off-limit behavior beforehand will help your teen remember and value its consequences and keep his gain/loss scale more balanced. It also conveys to your teen that he can have independence in n-number of other areas, making him more likely to try to abide by the limitations that really matter to you.

Believe they’re capable.

Fortunately, and maybe surprisingly, teens can be extremely good at making sound, reasonable decisions. A 2016 study gave teens and adults virtual driving tests in either a “hot” (emotionally charged) environment or “cool” (neutral) environment.

Researchers found teens were able to perform just as well on the driving tests as adults in the cool environment – but when emotions were high, teens performed significantly worse, breaking stop signs and getting into accidents. This is because emotional situations activate the more mature limbic system and suppress the still-developing PFC.

But in situations that don’t stress teens’ emotions, the PFC retains impulse control, and teens are as capable as adults of making good decisions.

Help them maintain a ‘cool’ emotional state.

So, help your teen become aware of their emotional states and identify when environments and feelings could be clouding their decision-making; for example, you might tell your teen to ask themselves if they feel comfortable or uncomfortable in any given situation.

Providing them with a framework to evaluate themselves and their surroundings will help your teen make more reasonable decisions – even when they are away from you.

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Written By Maitreyi Choksi

Maitreyi Choksi graduated from Barnard College with a degree in Neuroscience & Behavior, where she specialized in Developmental Neuroscience. She’s worked in countless numbers of labs researching parents and toddlers, taught as an assistant teacher at the Barnard Toddler Center, and is currently wrapping up a Master’s at NYU in Consumer Psychology. She’s currently obsessed with research on human microbiota, viruses, and adolescent neural changes. She also loves a good run, a solid yoga pose, and the Radiolab podcast.

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