Impulsiveness in Teens

by Alissa Fleck

    While teen rebelliousness is a tale as old as time, there is significant evidence to suggest the turmoil of the teenage years is caused at least in part by biology, rather than mere desire to drive one's parents crazy, according to a report by Harvard researchers for the American Psychological Association. Impulsiveness in the teen years can range in severity from questionable decision-making to more risky behavior, such as drug abuse. While science suggests teens are not entirely to blame for their willingness to take risks, they should still be held accountable and there are ways to help impulsive teens get better control of their behavior.

    According to Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, teenagers are more prone to impulsiveness than adults because their brains simply function differently. In adolescence, the brain is still developing, and the brain systems responsible for impulse control are not fully formed. This impacts teenagers' decision-making processes. Steinberg tells The New York Times that studies show teenagers are more thrill-seeking and drawn to the rewards of risky behavior than their adult counterparts. Adolescents tend to think less about the repercussions of their behavior and are much more prone to the effects of peer pressure.

    Some amount of poor impulse control and bad decision making is normal and characteristic of the teen years. Impulsiveness can manifest in driving too fast or making questionable friend or relationship choices. While biology certainly plays a role, a major contributing factor to the impulsivity of the teenage years is the social anxiety which arises from feeling left out. This fear of failure, exclusion and humiliation often impacts how an adolescent chooses to behave. The importance of external social factors should not be overlooked in considering teen impulsiveness.

    According to several researchers who published their findings in "Nature Neuroscience" in 2012, some teenagers are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol because their brain wiring is more inclined toward risky and experimental behavior. Adolescence is also a time when peer pressure is ever-present, making it a perfect storm for kids who are more likely to engage in risky behavior and may have trouble saying no. While past studies have linked ADHD in teens to drug use, the study published in "Nature Neuroscience" suggests ADHD is caused by similar poor impulse control in the brain, but that brain functions leading to ADHD are distinct from those associated with a propensity toward high-risk behavior. Despite evidence that some teens may have less control over their lack of inhibitions, it's important to consider the dangers of impulsivity, as serious addiction problems and risky behavior-related deaths are extremely prevalent among teens in the United States.

    There are certain things you can do to help get a handle on your teen's impulsive behavior, including encouraging her to think about the consequences of her actions. Teens should always be held accountable for their actions and you should not think of differences in brain function as an excuse for dangerous behavior. You may also rely on anecdotes by modeling times you or others engaged in impulsivity and describing the aftermath of your actions, as often it's helpful to have real-world examples from which to draw. Steer your teen toward healthy activities, like sports, which are productive ways of releasing energy and stress without engaging in negative impulsive behaviors. If your teen is getting involved with risky behaviors like drugs or alcohol, consider seeking professional help.

    About the Author

    Alissa Fleck is a contributing writer for several community newspapers in New York City. She writes book reviews for an online magazine and hosts a monthly reading series. Fleck has also interned at a literary agency and worked as a university teaching assistant. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

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