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Adolescent Development and Risk-Taking in the Columbia River Gorge Forest Fire

An Oregon psychologist's take on psychological and neurocognitive development in adolescence as related to risk-taking behaviors.

Portland, OR, September 15, 2017— In the wake of the Columbia Gorge forest fire this month, Oregonians who have enjoyed the outdoor natural playland are plagued with questions about "How?" and "Why?" this happened. Grief and other emotions run high with the intensity of watching our rest and healing places burn so vigorously. An improved understanding of adolescent neurodevelopment contributes to understanding of the underpinnings of this event. This post seeks to discuss the neuroscience behind risk-taking behaviors in adolescents, reward learning for adolescents, and considerations in parent supervision of adolescents.

Risk-taking in adolescence. Adolescent brain development research tells us that the frontal lobes (those responsible for helping us with planning, organization, and impulse-control) are among the last to reach maturity in humans. This part of the brain doesn't reach maturity until young adulthood (early 20s), at least partially explaining why risky behaviors are more frequent in adolescence. However, this is well after teens begin being granted more independence. Traditional teen milestones include independently operating motor vehicles at 16, graduating high school around 18, and moving out on their own around that same time. Mortality rates have been noted to increase by 200% during this period.

Reward in adolescence. Another center of the brain that operates distinctively in adolescence is the reward center of the brain. This part of the brain activates the feeling of pleasure when enjoyable experiences occur. Adolescent brains, however, have an exaggerated pleasure response when compared to other age groups. This exaggerated reward response system is activated when teens participate in risky activities, which is another reason why risky behavior increases in this period. Relatedly, adolescents have better memory for reward than punishment, whereas adults remember each kind of feedback equally. These findings begin to highlight how adolescents might respond strongly to approval from peers, while responding minimally to the possible negative outcomes of their actions.

Supervision of adolescents. Because of the gap between the age at which adolescents are granted more independence, and the age at which they are best equipped to handle independence responsibly, parent supervision is paramount in this age range. In fact, one often overlooked way to promote well-being in adolescence is for parents to maintain close relationships with their adolescent children, and to have time set aside for daily check-in and conversation with them. 

While it provides little solace for the great destruction that is occurring in the Columbia River Gorge, hopefully this information helps us to think with complexity about the issues at play.

To learn more visit and follow @OregonPsychEd.

Celeste Jones, Psy.D., ABPP              
Chair, Oregon Psychological Association Public Education Committee                             


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