The more dopamine that is circulating in our brain, the happier we feel!
In teenagers, dopamine levels are “enhanced” during adolescence…they create a greater, more intense “high”. As a result, the same “stimulating” (perhaps potentially dangerous) activity that a teenager engages in will be more exciting to them than it would be to an adult. This enhanced reward system in the brain can drown out warning signs about risk. Now does that mean that when teenagers do potentially risky things that they don’t know better? No, their brain’s desire for a “high” overrides their decision-making, consequence-focused prefrontal cortex part of their brain, which is still maturing (it doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s).
According to Beatriz Luna, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and Director of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development at the University of Pittsburgh, research points to differences in integration between parts of the brain. Individual systems – the network that regulates response to reward, the one that governs senses and movement, the decision-making system – are already organized on adult levels. But communication among these systems, which enables collaborative, effective judgement, and action, is still a work in progress.
Variability in teen behavior – sometimes mature decision-making, sometimes irrational impulse – reflects the same developmental imperative. “The brain is experimenting, turning the volume of various regions up and down, till it finds its optimal performance range,” Luna says.
So, what is the best way, as a parent, to help your child learn to make wise choices and avoid dangerous behaviors?
· Encourage positive behaviors and offer frequent praise and positive rewards for desired behavior. This reinforces pathways in your child’s brain. Expose your child to things such as music, art, theatre, reading, sports, crafts, and debate. Let your child take some healthy risks. New and different experiences help your child develop an independent identity, explore the advantages of good behavior, and encourage good choices.
· Help your child find new creative and expressive outlets for feelings. Doing things such as doing or watching sports or music, writing and other art forms can be good options.
· Assist your child in developing their critical thinking skills. Talk through decisions step by step with your child. Help them assess the pros and cons of decisions, even about things that have already happened. Talk through potential consequences.
· Use family routines to give your child’s life structure.
· Provide boundaries and opportunities for negotiating those boundaries. Guidance and limit-setting is an important method of providing a positive role model. Allowing your child to have a voice and learn to negotiate will offer a lifetime benefit.
· Help your child get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep is directly linked to poor decision-making, moodiness and depression.
These days, the more we can do to offer stability and structure to our children, particularly our teens, the better.