What were you thinking?

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What were you thinking?

Daniel Tan

It was 2 a.m.

With a pounding pulse and shaking legs, he carefully unlocked three deadbolts and turned the doorknob. Fearing the creaking door would wake his mom up, he paused every few seconds.

He knew he was doing something he shouldn’t have been.

A noise from inside froze him in his tracks. He dashed outside. Only two things were on this anonymous junior’s mind: the thrill of sneaking out and how to cover up the evidence. He had locked his bedroom door and stuffed pillows under his sheets. Although he had only gotten his permit that day, he started his mom’s car.

“Then I sped out,” he recalled, “hoping my mom was still sleeping.”

Adults who hear stories of such crazy adventures like this would usually shake their heads in bewilderment. “What was he thinking?” they might ask. They see no justifiable explanation for this teenage reckless behavior.

But even in this seemingly-irrational action, there is some reason.

Living in the now

There are many reasons why teenagers engage in risky behavior. But not all motivations are equal for everyone.

“What could be a motivation for one person could be different for someone else,” MVHS psychologist Lucas Leonard said. He suggests the desire to seek attention from peers and the pressure of current stresses as prime influences on teen’s actions.

But there is an overarching reason why most teenagers take risks: Their brains are simply not yet equipped to see the long-term effects of their hasty actions.

“You kind of live in the now, and you make decisions right now,” assistant principal Dennis Plaza said of high school students. “It’s when something happens that you go, ‘Oh yeah,’ and then you begin to see the whole picture.”

Leonard gave an example of teenagers stressed about a class. Wanting anything to reduce their pain, they decide to act out. Sent out of class, they would avoid having to do work, even though the long-term effects of their actions would be even more severe.“It’s just that feeling of not thinking straight and your legs are shaking and you have shortened breaths,” the junior said. All he wanted was the adrenaline from doing something risky. He wasn’t thinking about any consequences.

 

Caught in peer pressure

Back in February, friends of an anonymous senior girl asked if she had tried marijuana before. When she said she hadn’t, they offered some to her, and she accepted. And although her friends did not push her to try the drug, what they were saying ultimately caused her to make that decision.

“They always go like, ‘Everything’s going to be fine, you’re not going to die from it, you have one life, so live it,’” she said.

Plaza understands that actions like the senior’s can be expected, because long-term decision-making isn’t the only thing that takes a while to develop. In March, a study by the University of Oregon found that activity in teenagers’ ventral striatumin, which controls reward processing, increased with age, meaning that teenagers’ resistance to peer pressure is also developing alongside the decision-making portion of their brains.

Influence from friends also caused the junior boy to act in a risky way. His friends knew he had keys to his mom’s car, so they asked him to sneak out with them one night.

“Teenagers live for others,” the junior boy said. “They look for approval from their peers.” So, wanting to fit in and earn respect for doing something risky and not getting caught, the junior agreed.

“Back then I just wanted to be a badass with that little group of friends,” he admitted.

 

Affected by the family

Families can also impact a teenager’s decision to make risky decisions. According to Plaza, students with parents who stress academic honesty were less likely to cheat.

That familial connection was why the junior boy decided to tell his mother about his actions. When he arrived home at 7 a.m., he felt guilty about sneaking out behind his mom’s back.

“I told her because we have a close relationship,” he said. “She said it was expected and that most kids end up [sneaking out] anyways.”

Family pressures also work in reverse as well. One of the reasons the anonymous senior girl decided to try marijuana was that her divorced parents were not actually living with her and her older sister—instead, they had been working halfway around the world in China for the last eight years. As a result, her parents were never there to continually stress right from wrong.Even though the lack of parental guidance led to her do risky things, it also pulled the senior back in at the same time. When her parents discovered she had been smoking marijuana, there was one the thing she felt most guilty about: her mother crying after believing she was addicted to the drug.

“I would just change because of my family,” she said as she remembered her mother’s response. Thinking of them, the senior decided to stop.

 

“Part of maturation”

A big part of risky decision-making is just a part of becoming an adult and learning about the world.

“You want to try [risky things] out because you’ve never experienced them before,” she said. That’s why the senior girl decided to give marijuana a go.

“But that’s part of maturation,” Plaza explained. “That’s part of your development. That’s part of becoming an adult. We all make mistakes. And then those are important lessons.” When students come in after violating the Academic Code of Conduct, he sees it as an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes and change their behavior.

After the foray into smoking marijuana, the senior girl’s curiosity has been satiated. And now, after experiencing the drug herself, she knows it’s nothing special.

“It’s kind of stupid if I think about it now,” the senior girl recalled. “I wouldn’t do it again.”

The junior has reflected on his experiences as well. His decision to sneak out brought back mixed feelings. While he remembers the night as being exciting and fun, he would not do it again.

So what’s the best way to prevent yourself from making a seemingly-risky decision and regretting it later? Stop for a second and think.

“It’s like bungee jumping,” Plaza said. “You have to, at some point, decide what the possible outcomes are, good and bad. Is it worth the risk? What are the benefits? I get bragging rights? I get to tell all my friends I got to jump off a bridge?

“But there’s also a downside. And you need to know those risks before you make the decision.”