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It’s a fact: teenagers do bone-headed things that anyone in his right mind would never do. They do stupid stuff and when you ask why, they say something like, “I didn’t think.”  No kidding.

This sort of behavior can land them in real trouble, if it hasn’t already. So why are teens so thoughtless and what you can you do to help them wise up?

First, teens may look nearly grown up but their brains are still developing. And the part that is developing the most at this age, the prefrontal cortex, is the area necessary to evaluate a course of action and see consequences. This part of the brain isn’t fully online until late adolescence – about age 18 for girls and as old as 22 for boys. So when teens say they “didn’t think” or they “didn’t know,” they’re right. They didn’t really have even the ability to think things through or to know what might happen.

Second, teens are blinded by their own over-confidence. The under-development of their prefrontal cortex permits teens to inflate their own abilities and to think they’ve got everything under control. Teens can’t see all the details and possibilities so success at any venture seems simple to them. They feel perfectly capable of mastering any challenge, any challenge at all.

Finally, teens simply lack experience. We adults know where the pitfalls are. We understand that a child by the side of the road might dart in front of our car, so we slow down. We know water that is deep enough to dive into might still hide rocks, so we check before we jump in. We know that being asked to “take care of” something valuable for an acquaintance might mean that it was stolen and we know that receiving stolen property is a crime.

Teens don’t know everything, though they sometimes think they do, and they don’t have the brain power to think things through very well anyway. What can we do? How can you help your teen wise up?

1. Casually clue him in. Your teen may not want your advice, so you need to almost mention it just in passing. You might share with them your own dumb mistakes and let them laugh at you. You might wonder out loud about the possibility of danger, and let them realize on their own that danger was possible. Keep the lines of communication open without preaching or treating your teen like a child.

2. Play the role of spotter. Remember when your kid was little and you stood under the jungle gym, ready to catch her if she fell? You need to play this role again now, the role of spotter. Your teen will get into trouble that a more carefully thinking person would avoid. You need to stand underneath, ready to catch her and set her on her feet again. Don’t blame her for her thoughtlessness but help her make amends if need be and learn from her mistakes.

3. Continue to give your teen chances to make decisions. It might seem easier to just keep your teen indoors for several years until his brain catches up with reality. But the thing about brain development is that it requires experience to happen. The only way to learn how to see the possible consequences of an action is to have to make decisions that involve possible consequences. The prefrontal cortex requires exercise to develop. Make sure your teen’s brain gets this exercise.

And remember one more thing. While teens do make thoughtless mistakes, you do too. We all do. Each of us probably made a dumb error as recently last week. It’s easy to judge our teens’ stupidity as just that – stupidity – and forget that we made that error ourselves when we were fifteen and we made a different error of our own this morning. Life is full of uncertainty. We’re all learning. Love your teen.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

What is your position on outdoor rock concerts that go on all day and into the night? How about co-ed camping? Any thoughts on cliff jumping, white water rafting, or setting off fireworks? Many teens, possibly yours, will be asked to participate in these sorts of activities this summer. If you haven’t already now might be a good time to figure out if and when you want to draw the line.

It should be said right at the start that every summer thousands of teens across the country engage in what nervous adults might call risky activities  but  come to no harm. The chances that your kid will be injured or will injure someone else while having fun with her friends are very, very small. These sorts of sad events make the news because they are news: they don’t happen all that often.

And while every parent worries and might want to keep her child locked in a cave until age twenty-five, we all know that teens must have opportunities to make decisions and weigh risks. The brain’s prefrontal cortex – the area responsible for planning ahead and seeing the possible consequences of an action – undergoes tremendous development in adolescence. But in order to make that development happen, a teen must have plans to make, plans that could result in serious consequences if not thought all the way through. So to keep from stunting your child’s brain development, he must make his own decisions and see what the results are. You can’t keep your child safe by doing all the thinking for him.

But there’s no need to step back and let the chips fall where they may. You can be proactive, in preparing your teen to make big decisions, in knowing what you think she can handle and in laying down the ground rules early. Here are some thoughts.

  1. Be prepared. Make sure you know who your child’s friends are (first and last names). Make certain your child knows that you are there for him, no matter what, and that he should call you if he gets into trouble, no matter when. Despite the costs and other issues, your teen should probably have a cell phone so he’s not dependent on using the phone of someone else. Know if your child is a good swimmer. Make sure your child – boy or girl – knows how babies are made and how to keep from accidentally making one.
  2. Establish some basic rules about driving. The most dangerous place for your teen and her friends is a car. Even if your child doesn’t drive and her friends are too young to drive, realize that she may find herself in a car with a teen driver and a whole lot of other kids. If your child does drive, realize that she will be pressured to give rides to her friends and that no matter how good a driver she is when you’re riding along, she will be a worse driver with other kids in the car. So establish some rules and practice some scripts – things she can say when she turns down an offer of a ride or when she declines to give a kid a ride. Let her know how many people she can have in the car if she’s driving (your state may have laws about this).
  3. Establish a curfew and hold your teen to it. Whether curfew is 10 pm or 2 am, be ready to check to see that it’s observed. If your child isn’t home at the appointed hour, call his cell phone. Meet him at the door when he finally shows up. Being the parent of a teen means being up at night just as much as being the parent of a newborn is. Let your kid know you’re paying attention.
  4. Require an itinerary. Before your teen heads out the door, know who she’s going to be with, where they all are going, how they’ll get there, what they plan to do, and when she plans to be home. Naturally, your teen will tell you that she doesn’t know. Naturally, she may tell you about plans that never happen, even about things she has no intention of doing but that she thinks will sound good. The itinerary you hear may be far from the truth. But asking her to tell it to you will make an impression. It’s a way of emphasizing that you care.
  5. If you think it’s unsafe, don’t permit it. Remember that teens feel a lot of pressure to go along with whatever the crowd does. It’s difficult for a teen to refuse to do something he’d rather not without looking like a baby or a coward. So help him out. Tell him no. Give your child the ability to say “My dad would kill me if I did that!” It might be just what he needs to stand up for his true feelings.

Realize, though, that what you permit and what you don’t may not matter. Your child may very well do exactly what she wants despite your prohibitions. So  do what you can to prepare your child to be safe, to use her head, and to make her own (good) decisions. Summer is the time your teen is most likely to get into situations she didn’t expect and might not know how to handle. Figure out ahead of time how to help her be ready and how to still have lots of fun.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.

When you see your child about to do something dangerous what do you usually do?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, if you shout “Don’t do that!” or “Be careful!” you’re unlikely to make the kind of impact you think you’re making. You might indeed get the child to stop what he’s doing right now but he may do it later, when he knows you’re not watching.  Your child will not have learned what you know: how to identify a dangerous situation.

Researchers at the University of Iowa asked 63 mothers and their 8- to 10-year-old children to view photographs depicting other kids in situations that varied in their level of possible danger. For example, one picture showed a child climbing onto a countertop and another showed a child swinging a hatchet at a stick of wood. Mothers and children were separately asked to rate the danger of each scenario. The kids were also asked to rate how scared they might be to try what they saw in the photos.

In about a third of the situations, mothers and children rated the level of danger quite differently. The mother-child pairs were asked to come to consensus about a “safety” rating of the activities on which they disagreed. According to researchers, mothers who “encouraged the child to think through the safety of the activity and explained their own ideas about the activity’s safety” were almost always able to convince their children to agree with them.

One technique that was especially effective was pointing out elements in the scenario that made the situation more dangerous. For example, a mother might point out that trying to chop a stick with a hatchet is particularly dangerous because of the closeness of the child’s hand to where the hatchet will land. She might invite her child to suggest another way the child in the picture could steady the stick that will keep her hand out of range of the falling blade.

One other interesting finding was that some children view activities as less inherently scary than other kids do. These risk-taking kids may need even more help to evaluate a situation and to plan ahead to keep themselves safe. According to lead researcher,  Jodie Plumert. “You shouldn’t assume that your child knows why not [to do something], even if it seems obvious to you.”

It’s not enough to keep children safe while we’re there with them, ready to warn them off. It’s not logical to think we can be there with them all the time, ready to be their brains for them. Instead, we’ve got to make it clearer why a situation is dangerous and how to stay safe. Here are some tips:

  1. When your child is in danger, stop her or get her out of danger, of course, but then explain why the situation was dangerous. Just stopping the activity isn’t enough.
  2. Have a conversation. Ask your child what he could do differently to be more safe. Let him think things through and come up with an idea.
  3. Point out dangerous situations as you and your child go through the day and how you handle them to stay safe. If you turn the handle of a pan on the stove so it’s not sticking out where you might hit it, say what you’re doing and why. When you turn a rake tines-down on the lawn so no one will spike themselves on the points, say so and say why.
  4. Congratulate your child on noticing dangers and keeping herself safe.

Naturally, you don’t want your child to see danger in every step. Your point is not to make your child afraid. Your point is to provide your child with practice in seeing possible consequences.

The child who can imagine consequences is a confident child and one you can have confidence in.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

You know how this goes. You warn your kid about dangerous stuff or even just things to avoid, only to find they completely ignore you. They even act surprised after-the-fact that you ever warned them at all. Your warnings seem to fall on deaf ears.

There’s a reason why. Negative consequences are processed differently in the brain than positive consequences. The reasons why a risky behavior might be fun are more available to a child’s mind than the reasons why it might be dangerous. This fact can help us help our kids.

Researchers at University College London asked 59 people aged 9 to 26 to estimate the likelihood that any of 40 bad things would happen to them. The bad things ranged from stuff like getting head lice to breaking an arm or being seriously injured in a car accident and included stuff like, appendicitis, bicycle theft, home burglary, knee surgery, losing a wallet, sports injury, bullied by a stranger, and being stung by a wasp.

After they guessed, they were told the real odds of each event.

Then the participants were asked to guess the odds once again. Everyone was good at reporting odds if the risk was actually less than what they’d originally thought. But they were less good at remembering the odds of bad events that were more likely than they’d thought before. And the younger the child, the worse they were at remembering worse odds.

The problem wasn’t a matter of poor memory, since better-than-expected outcomes were remembered just fine. The problem was a matter of brain development. Positive information is registered in many different parts of the brain. Negative information is registered primarily in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for weighing consequences and making judgments. However, the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until late adolescence, even as late as the mid-20s.

So now what? How can you warn your child about risks and have those warnings be remembered? Researcher Tali Sharot says simply, “We learn better from good news than from bad news.” So instead of telling children about bad outcomes, emphasize good ones.

Admittedly, we still will worry and warn. We’d feel that we weren’t being good parents if we didn’t. But we shouldn’t be surprised that children don’t seem to process our warnings or apply them at the critical moment. This we should expect.

We have to be prepared to make our warnings over and over, and in as positive a way as we can. Nothing we can do will hurry brain development. Keeping our kids safe and healthy until their brains catch up is still a parent’s job.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

The only way children can increase their skills is through performing at the edge of their abilities. There’s not much risk of bodily harm in reading or playing video games at a level of personal challenge. But pushing strength and coordination to their limits can have dangerous effects. How can you keep your kids safe when they dare to test the boundaries of their physical skills?

Dare Devils come in two varieties, it seems: the Over-Unders and the Totally Clueless. Each requires different guidance from mom and dad.

Dare Devil kids who are Totally Clueless just don’t see any cause for worry. They are like toddlers who climb onto window ledges. Climbing is just what they do and they have no notion of heights, gravity, or how to maintain balance. We understand this in toddlers and preschoolers but some children remain Totally Clueless long after one might think they’d become more aware. These kids might have attention difficulties in other areas or they just might not have had much relevant experience. The city kid and the child with ADHD who both wander close behind a horse are equally clueless about the dangers of being stepped on or kicked.

The parent of a Totally Clueless child – whether this is due to age, attention issues, or lack of experience – has a responsibility to be proactive in keeping the child safe. This means, of course, that we have to be aware of the dangers ourselves. We have to be willing to learn from more experienced people ourselves, instead of just blundering forward without a clue. The city parent who takes the family on a visit to the farm but doesn’t pay attention to a child’s proximity to large animals is complicit in any injuries the child sustains when she discovers that cows can bite. We have to stay alert when our children enter into new territory because even clever kids may be Totally Clueless in unfamiliar fields.

Dare Devil kids who over-estimate their own abilities or under-estimate the dangers of a situation (or both!) require more targeted thinking. These Over-Unders are wonderfully confident  and many of them don’t take kindly to being told to downsize their assessment of a situation. These are the children who jump off cliffs into lakes, imagining that no rocks lie under the water in the places they imagine they will land. Their great imaginations show only positives. It’s our sad duty as parents to imagine the negatives for them.

Much of this we do by modeling prudence while our kids are still young. You hang around under the monkey bars, ready to “spot” your child when he slips. You check the water for rocks. You let your child know what you’re doing, because that reinforces both the danger and the necessary care.

Then, as your child gets older and as specific situations come up, you point out the possible risks and help to find ways to minimize those dangers. The child who is inspired by Olympic coverage to try gymnastics in the back yard sees only the fun of flying around and not the training, the preparation, or the safety equipment. Your teen who’s planning a back country camping trip with her friends imagines only the cozy camp fire, not the snakes or the lightning storms. You’ve got to find ways to preserve the fun while ensuring your child doesn’t land in the ER. The best way to do this, often, is to link your kid up to a class in whatever area he is overconfident of his abilities and under aware of the dangers. A day’s class in gymnastics or white water rafting will impress upon your child the need for care and preparation better than you can do. Or put into her hands a how-to book or link her up with an expert.

One of the burdens of parenting is being able to imagine danger around every corner. It’s important that we keep our own risk-assessment reasonable and not limit our children’s experiences to only what is safe. Doing that limits our children’s abilities. As we’ve seen, being Totally Clueless is no help.

But at the same time we have to remember that children don’t know what they haven’t tried. When they do try, we’ve got to keep their eyes open. We want them to survive the experience.

All kids should be dare devils, trying new things. We’ve got to keep our Dare Devils safe.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.