Research: Teenage brains inclined to risk-taking

Parents, if your teen sometimes engages in risky behaviors that seem hard to fathom, take heart. According to a University of Wisconsin-Extension/UW-Madison teen specialist, teenagers are physically, socially and emotionally programmed for behavior that people in other stages of life might find perplexing.

“A better understanding of the teenage brain helps to explain this,” says Rebecca Mather, who is part of a team that conducts research in parenting education and adolescent development.

Scientists say that during adolescence, young people possess high levels of dopamine, which creates a sensation of pleasure in the brain. Experiencing risk can literally create a thrill by increasing the sensation of pleasure via dopamine, explains Mather.

“To complicate matters, the section of the brain that controls decision-making is still not fully developed in adolescence,” Mather says. “The quest for thrill-seeking occurs before the brain can make a healthy decision as to what is a reasonable risk.”

But Mather advises parents not to be overly concerned if their teens engage in some risky behaviors. In fact, taking risks can be a healthy part of development by helping young people define their identity, practice independence and learn from their mistakes.

“The key is to maximize the opportunities for your child to engage in healthy risk, which leads to growth,” says Mather.

For some young people, taking a risk may be as simple as asking someone out on a date, snowboarding down a steep hill or auditioning for a part in a play. “It’s important to remember that most teens are none the worse for wear when risk-taking is within a reasonable range,” says Mather. “Eventually, your teen’s decision-making skills will catch up and one day you’ll find yourself laughing together over these mishaps.”

To learn more about issues affecting teens and preteens, consider joining the “Parenthetical” online community. “Parenthetical” features weekly postings about parenting topics based on research and the collected lessons and wisdom of parents.

For more information on “Parenthetical,” visit or contact Rebecca Mather at or (608) 262-1115.

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