The Case for Taking “Safe” Risks


"That teacher hates me, so I'll never get a good grade!"

"Why are you looking at me like that? You always make that face whenever I try to tell you something!"

“Stop judging me! You never think anything I do is good enough!”

Ah, the teenage brain. High emotions. Absolute words. Hormonal changes. Neurotransmitters gone wacky. Yes, your teenager is nuts! Don’t take this the wrong way, it's all a natural stage of growing into the adult brain. Blame the amygdala, the tiny almond-shape part of the limbic system, that the brain automatically defaults to when the Executive Functions in the prefrontal cortex haven’t fully developed.

How We Control Thoughts and Actions

Think about the last time somebody said or did something completely horrible to you. Maybe it was someone who cut you off on the Beltway or someone who neglected to hold the elevator door open for you. How did you react? You may have wanted to give the offender "the finger", cursed, or even become physically aggressive. But did you? Probably—and hopefully-not.

Why? As healthy adults, our prefrontal cortexes have developed to the point where we can override those thoughts, thereby putting the “brakes” on the situation. Perhaps we even think through the outcomes of our negative reaction: an argument, a public scene/social misstep, violence, judgment, etc. We also want to avoid being a bad role model for the younger people who mimic our actions and words. This all occurs within a fraction of a second (literally!) in our brain.

Now let's replay that scenario in the teenage brain. Since the prefrontal cortex hasn't finished growing, the teenager will often lash out or respond way out of proportion to the input because he or she doesn't have the ability to self-regulate. Not an excuse for poor behavior, just a reminder that responses must be conditioned and occasionally modeled while the learner grows into his or her brain. Many researchers believe that it takes a full quarter-second for an impulse to travel from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex.

Emotions Impact Learning

So what does this have to do with learning? The limbic system is our emotional center. It's primarily the place where "fight" or "flight" decisions occur. We are wired to defend ourselves or leave a threatening situation. Way back when, there wasn’t time to ponder if the saber toothed tiger had plaque on its teeth, why it was there, if it should just be passing through, etc. We either attacked the animal or got away quickly. Those who stood around and tried to apply reason to the tiger’s existence were eaten by the tiger, by the way.

Most of us no longer have to battle animals in the wild in order to survive, but our brains don't know that. But during highly emotionally-charged situations, especially in teenager's brains, thoughts and reactions defaults to the amygdala. In our modern day learning environment, if the emotion tied to learning is negative, such as fear, anger, hostility, ridicule, etc. no higher learning can occur because the amygdala kicks into gear. If on the other hand, the emotion tied to learning is joy, fun, laughter, no fear, etc. learning takes place efficiently because it’s a "safe place". No surprise that your child's favorite teacher will most likely be the teacher he or she thinks is "nice" or "fun."

Encouraging Teens to Take Safe Risks

Part of the challenge is allowing our children to take safe risks. What the heck is a safe risk? It’s simply an opportunity that allows learning to occur even if the outcome isn't what we desire. Safe risks could include writing an opinion essay that goes against the popular opinion, giving an explanation of a math problem without remembering all the steps, or arguing his or her point of view with you (sorry!).

We have become a society used to automatically saying "no" instead of "yes". For the next few weeks, I challenge you to track how many times you say "no" to yourself, to your child, to your spouse, or to anyone else you encounter. You will begin to notice how frequently you, and those around you, do this. In order to help those prefrontal cortexes develop, how about if instead of automatically responding "no," we ask first ourselves "why not"?

The Brain Coach Blog is written by executive function coach Mary Turos. Based in Belair, MD, Mary is affectionately known as 'The Brain Coach" for her work helping people achieve harmony using strategies based in neuroscience.  

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