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Child Behavior: Adolescents: Legends in their own minds

Why do adolescents act the way they do?

It’s certainly no surprise to any parent of an adolescent to say that adolescents do dumb things. How often do we say, “I don’t know how a smart kid like you can do something like that”? Dr. Janet Sullivan and Dr. Paul Schwartz understand that getting through the teen years is not easy. In her video, Dr. Sullivan offers three suggestions to help you with your teen. Dr. Schwartz offers even more advice on getting through those middle school years below.


While this column won’t make living with your adolescent any easier, hopefully it will help you to understand why they take the risks (often dumb ones) that they do. 

One significant reason for the increase in risk taking in adolescence, compared to childhood, is the changing way that adolescents think, especially about themselves.

Performing for peers 

Adolescents become so absorbed in thinking about the new changes and experiences they are going through, they have trouble differentiating their own thoughts from what they believe are the thoughts of others. 

This results in what is known as “the imaginary audience,” a belief that since they are so consumed with themselves, everybody else must be as well. So they often feel compelled to “perform” for their audience. 

During adolescence peers become the primary mentors on the rocky road toward the formulation of an identity, and they don’t want to let their peers down, so they give an attention-getting performance and act in ways that they believe will impress their audience. Some do stand-up comedy, some do feats of death defying intrigue, and some may just be seductive; whatever it takes for peer approval. It may not make sense to us, but it does to them. 

More from Dr. Paul Schwartz: Are we over scheduling our children?

Overestimating their abilities 

Additionally, adolescents begin to believe that they are unique and special, (although this phenomenon is currently permeating all developmental stages), they feel their lives are somehow different from others who are less special. They develop what’s called a “personal fable,” and they become sort of a legend in their own minds! 

This “I am special” view can fuel the participation in risk taking behavior, both positive and negative. We often focus on the negative, dangerous or just plain dumb risks that adolescents take; however, this “personal fable” that an adolescent develops can be a positive force in their lives. 

Because they view themselves as special, they overestimate their skills and abilities, and believe they will be successful at anything they attempt. This view of themselves gives them the courage to take positive risks that can enhance their lives.

Some positive risks might include preparing for a demanding career path after college or trying out for a sports team or after school club. This may give them the confidence to run for school office, apply for a challenging and competitive summer job, or even ask the cute girl or boy in biology class to see them outside of school.

Positive risk taking can enable an adolescent to move forward, believing she can master the challenges ahead due to her special place in the world. All these positive risk-taking activities can help an adolescent grow toward adulthood, explore who she is and who she wants to be, as her identity and the construction of herself take shape.

Just as risk taking can be healthy and growth enhancing, it can also become a dangerous force in an adolescent’s life. Egocentric thinking can cause adolescents to imagine that they are invulnerable to life’s problems and they are immune to the ordinary rules of life. Despite knowing about the dangers of a particular activity, they believe it can only happen to others and not to them. 

How parents can help 

Can parents help limit maladaptive risk-taking? They can, but there are a number of formidable obstacles to overcome, among them, egocentric thinking, peer influence, lack of experience and the developing adolescent brain (another column). 

Although these are significant obstacles, there are a number of things we as parents of adolescents can do to lower the risk factor for our children. First, and most important, don’t abdicate responsibility and become a “dropout parent”. 

Although they tell you to leave them alone, DON’T!! You are still the lifeline for your adolescent in time of difficulty. Despite their verbalizations to the contrary, your adolescent, still needs you and wants your help and advice, as difficult as it is for them to ask. Adolescents need to stretch the umbilical connection, not cut it! They need greater independence and autonomy, and don’t want overly intrusive parents in their lives. 

They do, however, want to know that their parents are there for them when and if, they need them (which usually are often). Despite the often ensuing conflict, don’t be afraid to set what you consider safe limits for your adolescent. Adolescence is a time of heightened anxiety and it’s comforting for them to know their parents are there to set limits on their often impulsive behavior. 

I’ve spoken to many adolescents who have related that they were both glad and even relieved, that their parents did set limits on their risky behavior. They might not thank you for it; in fact you will often provoke conflict for limit setting. Keep in mind beneath the displeasure expressed is their feeling of relief that you stopped them from doing something they were as anxious about as you were. Remember, it’s not “cool” to agree with your parents, especially where boundary issues are concerned. 

COMMUNICATE! Talking and communicating are not the same thing, don’t just talk at them; listen to them, and be honest about the issue at hand. Don’t give them the “when I was your age” talk unless you plan to include some of the things you really did when you were their age and the real problems you experienced and solved. If you do this they may not only listen but actually hear what you have to say. 

In addition to the aforementioned it’s also important to monitor where your adolescent is and with whom. Although adolescents are constantly challenging parents for greater independence, they still need, and even crave, adult supervision. So many parents are often caught unaware of what their adolescents are doing or who they are doing it with, until some problem or tragedy occurs. 

Effective monitoring and open honest communication with our teens can be the difference between your adolescents experiencing risk taking as a normal developmental pathway on the road to the formation of their identity, or from becoming problematic or even worse. 

Just as we shadowed them on the jungle gym when they were younger, we need to shadow them on their road to adulthood. Guidance from us is critical if an adolescent is going to successfully negotiate the significant and serious challenges they face today. 

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