Older generations have always been appalled and dismayed by teenage antics. Years ago, the rage was swallowing goldfish or stuffing bodies into VW Bugs. These days it’s cinnamon challenges and condom snorting. Brain science suggests a partial explanation for this phenomenon: our prefrontal cortex — the “decision-making” frontal lobe of the brain — isn’t fully developed until adulthood, which makes it more likely that kids’ emotions and impulses will trump common sense. Teens have a neurological “hall pass” for their irrational decisions and stupidity (unlike us older folks, who have no excuse).
What’s hardest to fathom is why anyone of any age would want to cram marshmallows into their mouth while repeating “chubby bunny,” gag on a throat-burning cup of cinnamon or test their pain tolerance by self-inflicting frostbite with salt and ice. What’s the attraction?
Boredom and the need for attention and acceptance from peers are common reasons adolescents are drawn to accepting dares, and child specialists are concerned that modern technology seems to be maximizing the allure, particularly the rise of the Internet and sites like YouTube and Facebook. Here’s how:
Children today are growing up in a hyper-stimulating world. In a recent study by the Pew Research Center in which 2,400 middle and high school teachers were polled, 87 percent felt that modern technologies and screen use were creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” which suggests children are being conditioned to need more stimulation and novelty, because they have a significantly lower threshold for boredom.
In less connected times, risk-taking might have garnered the attention of one’s friends and friends of friends. Today, however, sites like YouTube have made it possible to reach millions and become famous for just about anything…and nothing. The dumber or more shocking, the better.
Peer pressure always has and always will be the archenemy of healthy decision-making. The teen years are our most painfully self-conscious, and fitting in somewhere is a big emotional priority. Popularity is the Holy Grail. These days the stakes are much higher, because both peer pressure and popularity are not just about one’s circle of friends — they extend into the virtual world. Videos on social media sites have the ability to instantly inform a broad audience about the latest stunts and provide explicit instructions for carrying them out.
So what’s a concerned parent to do?
Self-confidence will always be your child’s best defense against peer pressure and attention seeking behaviors. True self-confidence is never about bravado. It’s about being able to say “no” to peers, make unpopular decisions and stick up for others who do, too. It is a deeply rooted comfort with self that we foster in our children in their first years through our actions rather than words of praise. Here are some key ways to do that:
- Accept all your child’s feelings: This does not mean allowing children to hit you when they’re angry, but it does mean encouraging them to express their anger appropriately.
- Let them choose: Allow children to self-direct play and call the shots regarding extracurricular activities.
- Provide boundaries without shame: Be a kind, empathetic leader, always on your child’s “team” while you guide or correct him.
- Appreciate the child you have: Rather than trying to mold her into the person you want her to be, enjoy your child “as is” and appreciate her choices rather than worrying about what she isn’t doing. Children are perceptive and especially attuned to their parents’ thoughts about them. They know.
Limit your child’s screen use in the formative years
The first three years are a crucial period for brain development, including the development of attention span, focus and other invaluable learning skills. If you take full advantage of the power you have to limit your child’s exposure to screens and tech devices during this precious window of time, you will raise a more successful, self-confident student and a less-bored child.
Be your child’s confidant
The secret to raising a child who tells you is not to judge. I’ve shared more details in Be the Person Your Child Confides In.
If you find out that your children or their friends are engaging in dangerous behaviors, stay calm. “Risk is a part of life. In some ways, it’s developmentally appropriate. [Kids are] learning to test their boundaries and find their way back to safety,” notes Jill Weber, a Virginia-based clinical psychologist.
Again, judgments and shame will impede trust and shut down communication between you and your child. Inform your child of the dangers of these behaviors and be clear about your expectations. Calmly ask questions that encourage your child to openly discuss his desires, needs and motivations with you. As Dr. Weber advises, “There’s always some underlying motivator. If it’s a lack of stimulation or novelty [in your child’s life], try to channel that into sports or other, healthier activities.”
While providing our gentle guidance, it’s imperative to keep believing in our children and remain their supporters and biggest fans. The choice to listen to us, like all choices, will ultimately be up to them.