By Dr. Mercola
Teens are among the most likely to engage in high-risk behaviors like careless driving, binge drinking, unprotected sex and drug abuse. Campaigns aimed at curbing these behaviors often focus on the negative consequences that can come of them, like getting into a car accident or getting lung disease from smoking.
New research suggests, however, that these risk warnings are falling on deaf ears or, rather, are simply not impacting the younger members of society. Why? As you might remember, and as research has now shown, teenagers tend to believe that they’re invincible…
The Good-News-Bad-News Effect
Humans have a tendency to believe they’re more likely to experience positive events than negative ones, a phenomenon known as the ‘good-news-bad-news effect.’
It seems this is especially pronounced in teens, who not only tend to discount their likelihood of experiencing negative life events, like being in a car accident, but still tend to discount them even when they’re told about the actual risk.
The study, which involved young people between the ages of 9 and 26, showed that those of younger ages did not change their beliefs about their risk of negative life events even after being shown real statistics for such events.1 The authors noted:
“In the ages tested (9-26 y), younger age was associated with inaccurate updating of beliefs in response to undesirable information regarding vulnerability. In contrast, the ability to update beliefs accurately in response to desirable information remained relatively stable with age.”
It seems, in other words, that teens simply do not believe they will succumb to negative consequences associated with risky behaviors, even if the facts suggest otherwise. As reported by Medical News Today:2
“Even when they became aware of the risks, the younger participants were less likely to learn from the information showing that the future could be worse than expected. …the new findings help explain why kids are not able to learn from bad news in order to apply it to future events.”
Positive Messages May Be More Powerful for Teens
If you want to get a message across to your teen, the study suggests that using a positive association is likely to be the most effective. For example, rather than reminding your teen that excess alcohol is damaging to their health, teach them that avoiding alcohol will help them reach their peak fitness level and excel at sports. As the study’s lead author said: 3
“Our findings show that if you want to get young people to better learn about the risks associated with their choices, you might want to focus on the benefits that a positive change would bring rather than hounding them with horror stories."
In light of these findings, it may be a good thing that the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) campaign to put graphic images of people dying from smoking-related disease on cigarette packages has been abandoned. It also raises concerns that warnings to teens about prescription drug abuse are also being ignored…
Teens May Not Take the Risks of Prescription Drug Abuse Seriously
One in four teens has misused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, according to survey results from the partnership at Drugfree.org and the MetLife Foundation.4 This represents a 33 percent increase in the past five years!
Even though prescription drugs can lead to slowed breathing, dangerously high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms and death if too much is taken, many teens regard them as a ‘safe’ way to get high. In many cases, parents only add to this assumption,
Not only because they may take multiple prescription drugs themselves but also, as the survey reported, because close to one-third of parents believe prescription stimulants can improve their teen’s academic performance.
Sadly, some teens pay for this one “bad” decision to abuse prescription drugs with their lives. Drug fatalities more than doubled among teens and young adults between 2000 and 2008, and these drug-induced fatalities are not being driven by illegal street drugs but rather by prescription drug abuse.
In this case, it’s important to sit down and talk to your teen about the dangers of taking prescription drugs just “for fun.” Far from being “safer” than illegal street drugs, they can sometimes kill in just one pill. However, given the study findings, you may also want to try a positive approach, such as focusing on other ways to have fun with friends and how avoiding recreational use of such drugs shows respect for their body and mind.
Is Your Teen Engaging in High-Risk Behaviors? Here’s What Really Helps
The teenage years shortly after puberty coincide with some of the greatest risk-taking behaviors among teens. As written in Slate Magazine:5
“During the years of greatest risk-taking, which peak somewhere around the age of 16 and during which the presence of peers greatly increases risk-taking, the adolescent brain is like a car with a powerful accelerator (the sensation- and peer-seeking social-emotional system) and weak brakes (the risk-containing cognitive-control system).”
Yet, studies have shown that educational programs in schools, pledges not to engage in risky behaviors and even reasoning with your child are not effective ways to change behaviors in teens.6 Yelling at your teen, especially if it includes harsh words, name-calling or other put-downs, is also counterproductive and likely to make your child even more disobedient, according to new research.7 So what’s a parent to do? Following are proven ways to help see your teenager safely through the highest-risk years:8
1. Know Who, What, Where, When and Why
Simply monitoring your teen, including knowing who he is with, what he is doing and when he’ll be home, greatly reduces risky behaviors like sexual activity and drug abuse. It may even be that the reason why boys tend to engage in more high-risk activities than girls is because parents tend to keep closer tabs on their daughters than their sons.
This also ensures you’ll know your child’s friends, which is important because peer influences cannot be underestimated at this age. If your child is associating with risk-taking friends, he’s more likely to engage in the behaviors as well. Encourage your teen to have his friends over to your house, where you can casually keep an eye on them.
2. Instill Traditional Values in Your Child
Starting early, show your child the importance of family time, taking pride in schoolwork and being involved in community and extracurricular activities. Family traditions and rituals like holiday meals and even running weekly errands help establish strong family bonds and reduce risk-taking in teens.
3. Help Your Teen Develop Competencies
The extended development of a skill, such as playing a musical instrument or taking care of horses, establishes a way for your child to be positively involved with an activity and, ideally, also their peers. Such structured activities, such as rehearsals, practices and recitals are typically under the supervision of an adult and help your establish protective influences around your child.
4. Build the Parent-Child Relationship
A child who feels loved, wanted, listened to and close to their parents is much less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Likewise for children whose parents are home at key times of the day – before and after school, at dinner and at bedtime. Avoid being either too strict or too lenient with your child and establish consistent expectations while being open to compromise and letting things go when you can.