Walking On The Wild Side

by Lucie Hemmen on April 26, 2012

Supporting Safe Decision Making

Risky behavior has been around since we were teenagers and long before. While certain fads in risk taking come and go, the foundational trio of temptations remains sex, drugs, and alcohol. Throw driving in with any of the three and you get even more risk and higher parental anxiety.

There are solid reasons teen girls are pulled to walk on the wild side. They want adventure, independence, and a sense of belonging. Even their brain development creates a pull toward experimentation, pleasure seeking, and novel experiences. At the same time, since the teen brain is still a work in progress, safe decision making is hindered by an inability to consistently or reliably anticipate and plan for consequences. Such operations are under the purview of the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the teen brain to develop!

The challenge of these teen years is that our daughters face the pressures of the risk-taking trio well before they’ve established the ability to make clear decisions and set reasonable boundaries. Pressure doesn’t imply that others are standing next to our teens actively cajoling them to take part in risky behavior. Pressure refers to the unrelenting marinade of messages coming from the culture. These messages lace together with incomplete brain development and flourishing sexual development to create a seduction into behaviors such as drinking, smoking pot, and “hooking up.” Even very young girls absorb cultural messages, which is why you see little girls dressing like they’re twenty-one, displaying a pseudo-sophistication disconcerting for their age.

If you talk to your teen about cultural pressure, there’s a good chance she won’t nod and contribute greatly to a conversation. Teen girls feel that the choice to either engage or abstain is theirs, and they are offended if you suggest a wider sphere of influence. They don’t identify our cultural value system, as promoted through the media, as a backdrop of pressure. It’s simply the world they’ve grown up in. Their viewing and their music is everyday entertainment, and they have no reason to question its impact. Still, they are conditioned by the messages. We’re all affected by cultural messages that consciously and unconsciously affect our values, choices, and priorities. Teen girls, however, are especially vulnerable to being adversely affected by them.

In time, teen girls cultivate a sense of personal boundaries and values. For some, experimentation is part of their value and boundary-refinement process. Decisions, good and otherwise, offer information and experience that help girls get clear on what’s okay for them and what’s not. Some girls use therapy to process how they feel about their experimentation, since a therapist can facilitate examination without the emotional charge of a parent. If adults can be nonjudgmental toward an experimenting teen, conversation can facilitate reflection while increasing knowledge. No matter where a teen girl is on the experimenting continuum, having a strong relationship with at least one parent is a point of resilience.

For other girls, experimentation is minimal because they already feel clear about their values, are low-risk takers, or fear the lowering of an authoritative hammer. Some will experiment once they get to college, while others will never feel the need to experiment much at all. While certain parents become absolutely devastated when their teen daughter experiments, I have learned not to jump to conclusions about what such behavior ultimately creates or means. I have seen many girls who used their experimentation experiences to ultimately put together a very solid and safe code of conduct and values.

What’s the bottom line? Most girls will gradually develop clear decision-making skills and become confident articulating reasonable boundaries. Until they do, they need guidance, support, and protection.

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