Jay Boll op-ed: Protecting Teens from Risky Behavior

We all know that the teen years are marked by less than optimal decision-making. Maybe you heard about the California students who organized an NFL-style draft for the senior prom, with some boys paying top dollar for their first round pick of dates ranked according to their “hotness” quotient. Or the Canadian teen who threw a party for 2,000 friends in his parents’ unfinished mansion (#mansionparty), causing more than $70,000 worth of damage before police arrived to break it up.

We may shake our heads at the folly of these teens with too much money, time and hormones and too little common sense. But the consequences of adolescent risk-taking weigh more heavily when they are closer to home and have more permanent effects.

Not long ago Darien Chief of Police Duane Lovello found himself standing in a public parking lot with his eyes wide open as police officers administered the opioid antidote Narcan to an unconscious teen, overdosed on heroin. Chief Lovello told me that the incident “really brought the problem full circle for me, seeing someone’s 19-year-old daughter lying on the ground almost near death.”

A preference for risk-taking is hard-wired into the brains of teens. Immaturity of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents, one of the last regions of the brain to develop, may be responsible for the poor decision-making that leads to high-risk behavior. This does not mean that we must accept risky behavior in teens as an unfortunate fact of nature. Knowing that our teens do not have fully developed brains with which to make good choices, control their impulses, and regulate their emotions, places an obligation on parents, educators and other adults to look out for them.

It helps to understand what contributes to and what protects teens from risky behavior. Risk factors are traits and characteristics in an individual, family or community that predispose a young person to mental illness, substance abuse, violence or crime.

Prominent risk factors include: low self-esteem and poor school performance; substance-using or delinquent peers; impulsivity, poor social skills, and peer rejection; family dysfunction, divorce, and marital conflict; poor parental supervision and problems of parental mental health and substance use; and stressful community environments.

Fortunately, there are protective factors that help insulate teens from risk. Darien’s Thriving Youth Task Force is working to cultivate the “40 Developmental Assets” in our youth. Research shows that the more assets a young person possesses, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior.

Individual protective factors for youth include: high self-esteem; capacity for delayed gratification and self-regulation; good coping and problem-solving skills; engagement in school, athletics, employment, religion, culture and the arts.

Family protective factors are: supportive family relationships; consistent structure, limits, rules, monitoring, and predictability; clear expectations for values and behavior.

Community protective factors are: physical and psychological safety; presence of mentors and support for development of skills and interests; opportunities for engagement in school and the community.

Teens may or may not possess the individual protective factors that can shield them from harm. That is why it is up to us as parents, educators, police and helping professionals to reduce risk in our communities and provide our youth with influences and skills that can keep them safe and foster their development. Darien schools, law enforcement, and groups and organizations like The Depot and The Community Fund of Darien’s Thriving Youth Task Force are at the forefront of this effort. But it will take an entire community working together to provide the kind of protective experience that enables youth to thrive and learn without undue risk to their well-being.

Jay Boll is Vice President of Laurel House, Inc., in Stamford, and Editor in Chief of www.rtor.org, for which he writes the family mental health blog, “The Family Side.”