Nurture Shock: Chapter 7 – The Science of Teen Rebellion Part 2

Part 1 – The Science of Teenage Rebellion

The most important take home point I thought was that the parents who were most consistent in enforcing rules were the ones that were most warm and had the most conversations with their children – they “set a few rules on the key spheres of influence and explained why the rules were there.  They expect the child to obey them.  Over life’s other spheres, they supported the child’s autonomy allowing her freedom to make her own decisions.  The kids of these parents lied the least.”

The hypothesis that most teenagers turned to drugs and drinking because they were bored was found to be true. Ironically, the feeling of boredom was not necessarily due to teenagers who had nothing to do.  Even the busy teenagers who were involved in lots of activities reported feeling bored.  Usually these were teenagers who were engaged in activities that their parents signed them up for.  They lacked intrinsic motivation.  It was also found that the more controlling parents were more likely to have “bored” teenagers.

Programs designed to teach teenagers to identify boredom and take action against it have not been found to be very successful.  This is because teenagers require a lot more stimuli to derive pleasure compared to adults and young children.  This difference in reaction was seen in a study where young children, teenagers and adults were required to play a pirate game with a reward of gold coins for success in the game.  They could either get a single gold coin, a small stack of coins or a jackpot of gold.  The pleasure centers in the young children lit up no matter how much gold they won.  In adults, the pleasure centers lit up in proportion to the amount of gold won.  In teenagers, only the jackpot of gold would create a big pleasure response.  The small to medium rewards of gold would create a reaction that appeared as if they were disappointed.  Teenagers were like drug addicts requiring large doses to create a large pleasure response.

It was also found that whenever teenagers experienced these large pleasure responses, their prefrontal cortex (which was responsible for weighing risks and consequences) experienced a diminished response.  Therefore, when teenagers are “experiencing an emotionally-charged excitement”, their brains are “handicapped in its ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences”.  Teenagers who are equally capable of evaluating risks as adults in abstract situations are no longer able to evaluate those same risks when experiencing exciting real life circumstances.  This explains why teenagers are apt to engage in activities that are dangerous and inappropriate.

Teenagers who experienced the greatest spikes in the pleasure centers of their brains when they won the jackpot of gold in the pirate video game were most likely to state that certain risky behaviours (such as getting drunk, shooting fireworks, and vandalising property) felt like fun.  The conclusion was that some teenagers are simply wired to take big risks.  Surrounded by friends, teenagers are apt to take risks just for the thrill of it.

Yet, despite all these risks that teenagers are apt to take, there are some risks that terrify them: risks such as asking a girl to a dance and the fear of getting turned down, changing a hair style, wearing a new shirt – the possibility of embarrassment is a risk few teenagers are willing to take.  In fact, teenagers would rather swim with sharks than face the possibility of embarrassment.

For teenagers, arguing is the opposite of lying.  Families that had the most argument were the ones where teenagers told the truth most often.  These teenagers that argued with their parents were the ones that told the truth.  They respected their parents’ right to lay down the rules but they would fight over what those rules were.  Families with less arguments usually meant that the teenagers merely pretended to go along with their parents but did what they wanted to do anyway.

Ironically, while parents felt that arguments were destructive to their relationship, teenagers felt the contrary and believed that arguments strengthened their relationships.  However, this was only the case where parents were willing to consider the teenager’s arguments and be flexible with the rules if the arguments presented by the teenager were relevant.  Therefore, while it is true that permissive parents had teenagers that lied and misbehaved the most, parents who were strict enforcers of the rules but were willing to make adjustments as necessary were the ones who were lied to the least.  For instance, making allowances to change the curfew for a particular night in which a special event was taking place.

Last but not least, it has also been shown that the popular belief that the teenage years are the nightmare years of parenthood is actually false.  The studies show traumatic adolescence to be the exception, not the norm.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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