I found this article in the AJC by Maureen Downey. Intersting read especially for parents with teenagers.

Many of us believe if we arm our teens with enough facts they won’t drink and drive, smoke pot or have sex at 16.

To that end, the United States spends more than a billion dollars a year educating teens on the dangers of smoking, drinking, drugs, unsafe sex and reckless driving.

Yet, those behaviors persist.

Adolescent psychologist Laurence Steinberg points out slightly more eighth graders use illicit drugs today than 20 years ago. Rates of teen pot use and drinking remain relatively unchanged. The only notable drop has been in teen smoking, which Steinberg, a Temple University professor and author of “Adolescence,” the leading college textbook on adolescent development now in its 10th edition, credits to pricing cigarettes out of the reach of most teens.

In a new book coming out Tuesday aimed at parents, “Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence,” Steinberg explains that teens know the risks of those behaviors as well as adults do. Adolescents are as smart as adults by their late teens; their memories are excellent, their reasoning skills sharp.

What they don’t have is the self-control and self-regulation of adults.

That is due, says Steinberg, to their developing brains. “Risk taking is a natural, hardwired and evolutionarily understandable feature of adolescence,” he writes. “Heightened risk-raking during adolescence is normal and, to some extent, inevitable.”

His book combines emerging brain science, parenting advice and political and education advocacy. Both his public policy and his parent recommendations are straightforward: Because it is hard to counter evolution and endocrinology, we ought to limit the opportunities for teens to exercise the immature judgment that comes with a developing brain.

In a telephone interview, Steinberg said, “I don’t want to send a message that we need to set our homes up as a kind of prison camp for kids. Kids need opportunities to be independent and have autonomy.”

“One reasonable example — given the fact we know a lot of experimenting with drugs or drinking or sex occurs in the afternoon hours when they are out of school and their parents are at work — is for schools to provide better after-school activities that have adult supervision,” he said. Funding for such programs could come from the budgets now underwriting ineffectual health education classes.

Steinberg encourages parents to require their teens participate in activities. “As a parent, you can say to your child, ‘You don’t have to do this specific activity, but you have to do something. You just can’t hang out with your friends. You can’t go over to Sally’s house because that’s the place where there are no parents.’ We know letting adolescents have a lot of unsupervised time in groups is a recipe for trouble. It’s not all kids. And it’s not all the time. But as a rule, it is true.”

There is no more vivid illustration of the impact of peers on teens than on the road. Letting teens drive with three friends in the car is akin to allowing them to drink and drive, said Steinberg. (Two recent accidents in which Georgia teens died, including a speed-related Murray County crash that killed four people, involved teens driving with friends. The Facebook page of the teen driver had a meme that reflects the role of peers. It read: “Good friends stop you from doing stupid stuff. Best friends do stupid stuff with you.”)

Steinberg cites fascinating research on how teen behavior changes when kids have an audience of peers because the reward circuitry in their brains is activated. They are far more likely to drive fast, shoplift or drink with friends than when alone. In lab experiments, teens take more risks when told another teen is observing them on a computer screen.

While we often cast adolescence as something to be endured and survived, Steinberg says it also can be seen as an opportunity if we understand what teens need to thrive. And that is support, engagement, opportunities and limits. The best predictor of adolescent mental health, he says, is parent involvement.

On a personal note, I have always been tough on my kids for mistakes I perceived were made out of carelessness or failure to think through the ramifications. Inevitably, I would have frustrating conversations with them in a search of the “why” behind their act. I seldom got a thoughtful answer. So, I would press on, insisting they explain how otherwise smart kids could do something so stupid. It seldom was a fruitful exchange. (One of my problems is that my oldest was born with her eyes on the prize and rarely lost sight of it. I expected my next three to be similarly focused, organized and purposeful. They weren’t and it took a while to understand that.)

Steinberg explained why “How could you do something so stupid” conversations are often doomed: “I think it is worth asking. But if they say they don’t know, I wouldn’t automatically interpret that to mean they do know and aren’t telling you. I think sometimes they just don’t know. If they could articulate it – and often 13- and 14-year-olds aren’t going to be able to – they would say, ‘I just got caught up in the moment.’ If adults get caught up at a party and did something silly, they say, ‘That is how things were going and I got on the train.” At some, point, you believe that if you drill down deeply enough there is going to an ‘aha’ moment of revelation. I used to think that. I just don’t think that anymore.”

A friend of mine has a 15-year-old who is physically gifted but also willing to test those gifts with incredible feats of risk, especially if he has an audience as he climbs the highest tree and swings from branch to branch.

How, I asked Steinberg, do you keep such a daredevil safe?

“I don’t think there is any simple answer to this. By the time somebody is 15, you can have a conversation and say, ‘You probably don’t realize it, but when you are in a group situation it impairs your judgment. I want you to know so you can monitor yourself a little bit more carefully. When you are with other peers, it changes the way your brain functions.’

“I think we can do something to help kids understand their own brain development, so we can make them more self-conscious and more self-aware that they need to take a couple of breaths,” said Steinberg. “But I am not the kind of pop psychologist who says if you follow my three rules, your kids are never going to have a problem. I can only help try to improve the odds.”This Blog brought to you by North Buckhead Driving and DUI School, your first choice among Atlanta DUI Schools and Defensive Driving programs.

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