Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around

Woman glowing brain conceptBy Christian Jarrett

The traffic lights turn amber: should you brake or accelerate on through? If there’s a teenager at the wheel, the chances are he or she will put their foot down and keep going. Teenagers love taking risks, more so than any other age group. This is partly down to the immaturity of the teen brain: they do not yet show the same connectivity between frontal decision making areas and deeper reward-related brain areas, as compared with adults. But there’s also a social element. When an adult is around, teens tend to take fewer risks, and their brains show less reward-related activity after taking a risk, a phenomenon that psychologists call “social scaffolding” because it is as if the adult presence is helping the teen to attain adult-like behaviour. A new study in Developmental Science builds on these findings and makes the claim that a teenager’s brain is influenced to a greater extent by the presence of his or her mother than by an unfamiliar adult. 

João Moreira and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 15-year-olds (9 girls) while they played a risk-based game that involved going through a set of 26 traffic lights as quickly as possible and deciding at each set whether to accelerate or brake as the lights turned amber. Accelerating saved time usually, but also carried the risk of a crash which would lead to a greater delay than braking. The teens played the game twice: once in the presence of their mother who was located in the scan control room, and the other time in the presence of an unfamiliar female professor who was described as an expert in adolescent driving behaviour (some played the game with mum present first, others with the stranger present first).

There was a tendency for the teens to take fewer risks when their mum was present, as compared with the professor, but this difference didn’t reach statistical significance. However, at a neural level there were statistically significant differences between the conditions: when mum was present, the teens’ brains showed more reward-related brain activity after making safe decisions and less reward-related brain activity after making risky decisions. Mum’s supervision seemed to make caution a more pleasurable approach, at least at a neural level.

There was also an important difference between conditions in terms of the functional connectivity between decision making and reward-related brain regions in the brain. In the mum condition, but not the adult stranger condition, there was a negative correlation in the activity between these regions: a more mature pattern typical of that seen in adults.

Finally, the teens’ brains showed more activity in regions associated with perspective-taking when taking risks in the mum condition, perhaps suggesting they were concerned with what she might think.

The researchers interpreted their findings as suggesting there is something unique about the influence of a parent (or a mother, at least) on the way a teenager’s brain processes risk, which could have practical implications. For example risk-prevention educational programmes for teenagers, which often struggle to make a difference, might be more likely to be effective if parents are directly involved.

Unfortunately, the study is hampered by several methodological issues such as the small sample size and the lack of a baseline control condition: the latter means it’s not clear if differences between the conditions are caused by the benefits of a mother’s presence or the opposite effect of an unfamiliar adult. Also, many issues are left unanswered, such as: would a father have the same apparent effect as a mother? And does the quality of the parent-teen relationship matter?

Mother still knows best: Maternal influence uniquely modulates adolescent reward sensitivity during risk taking

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

8 thoughts on “Teenagers’ brains process risk differently when Mum is around”

  1. May be the teens were protective of their moms, as they didn’t want their moms to get hurt in the crash during their adventurous pursuit, seems like one of the many likely reason to me 🙂

    1. Good point, but each participant’s mother was not located in the car, she was in the scan control room. I’ve made an edit to the post to make this clear. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Great article.

    I wonder how much of the research here could be applied to other elements of a teenagers life. Not just attitude to risk. For example when making different choices. Also, I wonder how much the risk element is a part of the teenage brain evolving. Without this element being tested/exercised do they end up finding it difficult to manage risk later in life. One to watch as our understanding improves.


  3. This could also be a false positive, because with a parent there is a fear conditioning, a fear of punishment, when alone, that is lessened. Also, it is natural for a generation to push on imposed boundaries, this is simple discovery. After all, the present system is a mess, just look at the earth and the condition it is in. Thus, a motivation through fear, and a desire to do something different because what exists is unacceptable, causes a resistance to a status quo that is not working, and a behavior of ingrained fear when the parent is around. The presence of structure, and the push again existent structure, point to an overall awareness of structure, though existent in a state of not seeing the forest through the trees, meaning we are so myopic we cannot see the differences and become a master of self. Our inner structure, or ‘ time” ( a series of events on a timeline, called a seed of information) is not equal in awareness to what we are within, and what is without, creating a lack of awareness and focus ability in real problem solving. It simply means that we have become a consciousness of separation. The reason why young children learn as fast as they do, is because this inner structure has not yet been formed, they are in essence building an inner blueprint/map/reference/seed-of-information. The problem with most adults, is that they are lost in that blueprint, and believe it to be more real than the world from which it was built. Even with inherent ‘ goods’ within that set body of information/experience, it is limited and no longer connected to the sum of the parts as reality. IT is a cage like consciousness. Something the un-formed teenagers sense yet cannot explain. When they do speak up, against that mind-consciousness it reacts, resists, remains complacent, loses it spatial ability- begins to complain, threaten, be impatient, righteous, self interested, and ignorant of what is real, the practical and physical reality. Remember how feral children are difficult to refocus? Remember how it was possible with someone like Helen Keller? The answer is not so much the parents, though they are responsible and all research in education makes this clear, it is that the inner structure must reflect the outer, or, the inner structure must have the capacity to be in reciprocity with the outer world. Teenagers are simply still able to somewhat realize a disconnect between the two presences. They do not want to accept a limitation, and are not yet lost in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where their employer maintains with the collective employees, the Semmelweis Effect because survival comes before practices that consider all things , as that job. The oppresor becomes the savior, is ‘ nationalised” causing extremism, or ” don’t look’ because I will lose my job.” This practice is what we become, thus made habit, and forced upon the child, who eventually succomes and begins the cycle all over again.

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