Did your mom ever tell you, “If your friend jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge are you going to jump to? I think most adults who are old enough to have teenagers now heard that gem of parenting logic. The biggest secret of my childhood is my mom never really understood I was the friend, asking the friend to jump off the bridge. I can look back now and chalk it up to natural curiosity. In the moment, there were times I was that kid other parents were worried about. I wasn’t a huge juvenile delinquent or anything like that I just seemed to find a more than healthy amount of interesting situations. When I became a parent, I knew one of my personal challenges would be to strike a balance between telling what not to do stories and example lessons of what not to do.
The Curious Teenage Brain
Right now I only have one teenager but I have two up-and-coming. We talk a lot about the difference between natural, healthy curiosity and dangerous behavior. The line between the two can be really difficult for teenagers to figure out on their own. This is where I have found using science to be a great tool. We talk about how the teenage brain craves sensation as a learning tool. Sometimes in the quest for adventure, the part of the brain that might say, “Hey maybe this isn’t a good idea,” can be overridden by a rush of endorphins. For these lessons I have also found videos of fails to be a wonderful resource. As we look at them together we can evaluate what is going wrong in the situation. As my kids recoil in horror, we talk about how painful the outcome probably was. While curiosity killed the cat, I try to reinforce that curiosity sometimes puts the teenager in the emergency room. It is this continuous but gentle evaluation of risk versus reward that has helped my kids understand the difference between healthy curiosity and stitches. So far no stitches, meetings in the principal’s office, or phone calls from police.
When we tell our teenagers, “Don’t do drugs,” we think we are sending a message. However we have made a crucial mistake. By failing to define what “drugs” exactly are our teenager’s brain doesn’t completely understand the message. Whether your teen realizes it or not he is asking in his own mind, “What are drugs?” As parents we can assume that they understand or we can explain in detail. For example, if my kids have a headache at Aunt Becky’s house they know it’s okay to take an OTC pain reliever. They also know it is never okay to take a prescription drug out of medicine cabinet. In the mind of a teenager, a pill is a pill. The concept of danger between OTC medication and prescription drugs doesn’t always compute in the teenage brains. Parents we have to explain in detail that may seem ridiculous to us. One of the dangers of prescription drugs is that in one body they are just fine and in another body they can be deadly. I go on to explain prescriptions which are to be written only by a physician and taken only by the patient for whom they were prescribed. When prescription drug abuse among teenagers is at an all-time high, our kid’s lives depend on us giving them that knowledge. In addition to explaining to my children the dangers of prescription drug abuse, I have used this infographic from Sundance Canyon Academy. I asked them to study it and then I ask specific questions about the information so I am sure they understand.
Cultivating Healthy Curiosity
For many teenagers drug use starts out of curiosity. Especially when we have encouraged our teenagers to explore the world sometimes they don’t understand how to draw those healthy lines. Research has actually shown the more curious a person is the more satisfaction with life they report. Again that faulty, pleasure-seeking-teenager might not possess all the skills to make safe, healthy decisions. It is, however, that healthy curiosity which may keep your teen from dangerous social behaviors such as alcohol and drugs. Helping your kids engage in appropriate activities such as sports, music, or art lessons will give their brain the same “high” and it will likely be enough to keep them from seeking a pharmaceutical or illicit one.
If we go back to the pleasure-seeking teenage brain for a moment we need to understand what is at stake if our teenager’s natural curiosity is not fed in healthy ways. Curious teens who have no outlet turn to delinquency to feed that part of their psyche. In some kids delinquent behavior is the very simple result of being bored. To parents that seems completely ridiculous but to the jumbled neurons of your teenager’s brain you have to understand it’s completely logical. The result can be trouble at school and eventual trouble with the law. If you have a teenager who is starting to be out-of-you must to do everything you can to pull them back.
Successfully raising teenagers means understanding them from the brain on out. Your poor kid’s brain is so confused right now that he literally does not know what to do. Accept the jumbled mess and help your teen understand. Relaying messages of “what not to do” stories might feel like parenting but you need to go deeper than that because your teenager’s brain is not getting the message. Clear communication and embracing their natural curiosity can help you both.