Every once in a while a Scout does something so stunningly foolish and reckless we stop and ask; “He’s such an intelligent kid, why did he do something so stupid?”
Emerging brain development research explains the sometimes stunningly bad choices adolescents make. Understanding how the developing adolescent brain works will help us help our Scouts avoid risky behavior and address the consequences of bad choices when they occur.
Why do they act this way?
No matter how many times you have heard it repeated teenagers do not perceive themselves to be invulnerable. Researchers tell us that teenagers make poor choices about risk because they have not developed that part of the brain that provides for a working understanding of the good or bad consequences of a given action.
It’s surprising to learn that teenagers often over estimate risk. They sometimes choose poorly because they tend to weight benefits more heavily than risks.
For example let’s imagine we’re standing on a six foot platform with a ladder to the ground. It may be riskier to jump down but we’ll get down much quicker than taking the ladder. As an adult I would weigh taking the ladder as a sure thing, I’ll be on the ground safely. It will take a few seconds longer but I may hurt myself if I jump.
To a teenager the benefit of getting down quicker becomes so heavily weighted in the equation that it outweighs the risk. So he jumps.
Poor risk assessment is compounded by four other factors:
- Teens are much more motivated by the promise of rewards then they are discouraged by the threat of punishment.
- Teen brains don’t sort out mixed signals very well.
- Teens are actively looking for experiences that create intense feelings- thrills, sensations, excitement, novelty and tend to react more strongly to emotional situations.
- Teens are heavily influenced rewards of admiration and notoriety from their peers.
In part two we’ll discuss how we can help Scouts deal with risky situations.
Bob Carlson says
My brother was a door gunner on an Army helicopter in Vietnam 1968-69; he was 18-19 years old. He said they never used harnesses or straps to hold them in because they were clumsy, got in their way, and hindered movement. He would swing outside the ship using centrifugal force to keep from falling out. He said that on the UH1’s (Huey) that were converted to gunships they had a rocket pod on both sides, just outside and below both doors. Those gunners would step out and place one foot on the pod and the other inside, so they could fire their M-60’s straight forward; again no harnesses or straps.
My son is a History teacher in a high school and every year my brother gives a talk on flying in a helicopter in Vietnam, and tells them what I mentioned above. He then says: “I was nineteen years old and had my backside hanging outside a helicopter with no harness on. I’m now sixty-two and won’t drive around the block without my seat belt on because I might fall out of the car.” He says he shudders today when he thinks about things they did in the helicopters in Vietnam, but the pilots and crews were all under twenty-five, many still in their teens.
Allan Green says
Clark, I have heard this point about juvenile development before, and every time I consider it, the more it makes sense in light of what I actually see in my scouts.
And, there are other factors behind a scouts behavior that can come to light. I saw two of my scouts rough housing in front of the fire one evening, an called out for them to stop. One of them, a generally good natured kid, got really defiant and yelled back. This escalated until he was red faced and fuming, and ready to run out of camp. I got him to sit out a bit to cool off, and later talked to him privately. It seems that on a stop at a gas station on the way to camp, he had tanked up on several energy drinks, the kind full of sugar and caffeine, the kind that I later found out have been forbidden by his parents because of the way they make him act. I think I was able to talk peace and win his loyalty back with a face saving solution.
It made me start monitoring what these guys consume on the way to the campsite. When you add chemicals to the equation, behavior can be really hard to predict.
Terry Dutton says
Well stated, Clarke. Here and there boys in our troop have made poor decisions (shocking, right?). Sometimes I have to remind other adult leaders that the manner to address these poor choices is THROUGH scouting and the troop, not through exclusion from scouting and the troop. When I was a young adult leader, a couple scouts were sent home from summer camp for some poor choices (not my decision to send home). We never saw those scouts again…