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Why children take risks?

A neuro-imbalance theory—the emotional part of the brain develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex, or they’re not wired together very well until later in life.  Because of that, adolescents take risks that most adults wouldn’t take—not because they think they’re invincible, but because emotions rule the day and they’ve got dopamine at very high levels in their brain. So, things are more exciting, more enticing to them. They are more driven by reward, and they want to go after things that have a high potential yield reward—like the thrill of the rollercoaster. But if you can’t take a rollercoaster ride, you can hit 100 miles per hour on a freeway, and that’s exciting, too.

One of the major developmental milestones of becoming an adult is learning how to manage your emotions, so you don’t get fired from a job or ruin all of your friendships. We learn how to control our passion, and this is partly in line with the brain growing, the dopamine (Dopamine is an organic chemical of the catecholamine and phenethylamine families that plays several important roles in the brain and body) lowering, the hormones settling down, all those things.

But it also has to do with us growing up and learning and having more experience and building our repertoire of things that we can do when we feel upset or angry. Some of this just happens with maturation; but it can also be encouraged or taught.
Self-efficacy is about feeling powerful in this world, like you can have some impact. It may not be that you’re going to be an astronaut or the president; maybe you’ll do other things that matter and are important. You have to discover through trial and error what you’re good at, what you can commit to doing. That reckoning generally happens from about 13 to 30 years of age, and it can really empower teens when they figure it out.
We are built to develop in a certain way; so, most of us—with some exceptions—will take on more responsibility and learn to manage our emotions and function better naturally.
But adolescence is a big transition, and there’s a lot more we can do. Many years ago they used to teach kids progressive muscle relaxation and meditation. But it went out of style in the ’80s and ’90s because there was no real data for it—no evidence-based medicine. Well, now we’re getting some evidence that these practices actually work, beyond just subjective report.
Exercise and arts programs in schools really help our kids to learn better. A lot of this has to do with giving kids opportunities, coaching them, supporting them, mentoring them, tutoring them, getting the kids with disabilities—whether it’s learning or emotional disabilities—supports they need.

Jess P. Shatkin

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