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Do teens have the ‘brain wiring’ to respond appropriately in dangerous situations?

In her book, The Teenage Brain, Frances Jensen talks about adolescence as being a particularly risky time of life due to their brains still “being wired”, resulting in them often finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations and simply not knowing what to do next. She quotes a 2010 study conducted by the British Red Cross that examined how teens react to emergencies involving a friend drinking too much alcohol.

“More than 10 percent of all children and young teens between the ages of eleven and sixteen have had to cope at one time with a friend who was sick, injured, or unconscious owing to excessive alcohol consumption. Half of those had to deal with a friend who passed out. More broadly, the survey found that nine out of ten adolescents have had to deal with some kind of crisis involving another person during their teenage years – a head injury, choking, an asthma attack, an epileptic seizure, etc. Forty-four percent of the teens surveyed admitted to panicking in that emergency situation, and nearly half (46 percent) acknowledged they didn’t know how to respond at all.”

I don’t think the results of the study would shock many, in fact I was surprised that it was only 10% who reported looking after someone who was drunk (although the age range could have something to do with it – you would hope very few 11 or 12-year-olds would be dealing with this issue). Years ago I used to ask Year 10 students to indicate whether they had ever had to look after a drunk friend – it was usually about one third of the group who said that they had. That’s frightening when you think that these are 15-year-olds who have little, if any, life experience and brains that are not ‘wired’ to respond well to danger … A significant number of these young people are trying to deal with potentially life-threatening situations and don’t have the information or the capacity to respond appropriately.

Over the years I have been involved with so many tragic cases of young people dying simply because those around them did not know what to do when something went wrong. When it comes to this area, there are two issues that continue to frustrate me with parents:

  • some believe that if alcohol is provided to young people or they are given a ‘safe space’ to drink then if something does go wrong they will be more likely to seek help from adults without fear of getting into trouble, and
  • those parents who choose to provide alcohol to their child to drink at parties rarely, if ever, ensure that their teen is also provided with accurate information and advice on what to do if something goes amiss

If so-called ‘safe spaces’ ensured that teens would seek help when something went amiss I would be much more likely to support them. The fact of the matter is that, in my experience, they don’t! When looking at the alcohol-related deaths I have been involved with over the years, almost everyone of them occurred at a party or gathering where alcohol was either provided or, at the very least, tolerated by the host parents. One of the most tragic deaths I was involved with happened at a 16th birthday party held in Melbourne almost 15 years ago.

Cassie had recently separated from her husband and wanted to make her daughter’s birthday special. Even though she didn’t feel comfortable with the decision, she was eventually bullied into providing alcohol at the party by her daughter, Jo, who convinced her that everybody else’s parents were doing the same thing (something she later found out simply wasn’t true). At some point during the evening one of Jo’s friends, aged just 15, became so drunk that she lapsed into unconsciousness. Instead of seeking help from Cassie, or one of the other adults at the party, Jo and three other girls carried the drunk young woman into a bedroom and lay her on the bed. The four girls, who had also all been drinking, sat on the bed and did their best to look after their friend. It was not until some time later that they realized their friend was dead. At some point she had vomited and choked to death and not one of the four young women had noticed!

I kept in touch with Cassie for many years. She was understandably devastated by what had happened and for a long time believed that she had ‘killed’ the young woman. There were many issues she struggled with but she could simply never understand why four smart young women did not come to her or find another sober adult to help look after their drunk friend. Why didn’t they call an ambulance? They were not going to get into trouble and no judgement would be made about their behaviour. It just didn’t make sense. In her book, Jensen gives a similar example of teens not responding appropriately to an alcohol-related incident. Something went wrong and they took action but they didn’t call an ambulance. She describes this behaviour as follows – “… the teenagers’ amygdalae (the emotional part of the brain) had signalled danger, but their frontal lobes (reasoned thinking and judgement) didn’t respond. Instead, the teens acted in the moment.” Put simply, during the teen years they simply don’t have the ‘brain wiring’ to always respond appropriately …

I wrote about my second concern recently but it’s worth saying one more time! If you’re going to make the decision to provide alcohol to your teen to drink at a party or a gathering on a Saturday night (and that’s your decision to make – no-one can tell you what to do with your child) then the least you can do is to ensure they’re armed with some basic safety information at the same time! Simply handing over the bottles, then dropping them off at someone’s house without any advice or information should something go wrong is plain wrong and totally irresponsible …

Now you may be thinking ‘but what’s the point of providing them information if their brain is not wired to use it appropriately?’ Well, this is where it comes down to understanding what the teen brain is capable of doing, or at least what type of information has the best chance of being effective. If you want a teen to respond to safety advice, it really boils down to three key points:

  • keep it simple
  • keep it practical
  • repeat and repeat and then repeat again

A great message could be “If something goes wrong, call 000 and then call me” and you say it every time they walk out the door. There’s no judgement, it’s simple and practical and it could save a life! I can guarantee that there will be some young people who will roll their eyes, tell you that “we don’t do that kind of stuff” or the like but keep saying it – repetition of messages is important during the teen years …

We’re never going to be able to prevent young people from finding themselves in risky situations. As much as all parents want to protect their kids from danger, at some point you have to let them take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. But this does not mean that at 14 or 15-years-old you should abandon all rules and boundaries and simply accept that ‘they’re all going to drink anyway’ and place them in situations of unnecessary risk … As they enter middle adolescence, many of them may start to look like they have the bodies of young adults but parents should never forget that their brains have a lot of catching up to do …

Published: January 2018

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