Less Risk Taking and More Happiness for Teens

cheerful young volunteers with garbage bag after cleaning the streets

Teens are “rude”, “wild”, “irresponsible” and “failing to learn the values of honesty, respect and responsibility”. A national study from 1997 found that more than 70% of adults used those words to describe teens. I imagine you may feel this way about your kiddo at times, or often. While I understand the sentiment, I don’t think these kinds of blanket descriptions are helpful or accurate in most cases. However, I am concerned that adolescents are often overly self absorbed and as a result, not very happy. I’ll tell you an important way I think we can help them move through this.

Helping others makes us happier

A study of adults came out recently that found people who perform acts of kindness towards others or the world experience increases in their overall mood and psychological well being. That’s not breaking news. But it also found that people who participated in self care activities like exercise or taking a day off of work did not show increases in these areas.

The personal benefits to being kind and generous can be attributed to the experience of positive human connection which facilitates the release of dopamine, the feel good hormone that adolescents have an overabundance of.

Positive risk taking and social rewards

As you know too well, this period of transition is marked by dumb and often very risky decisions. This isn’t because teens don’t have adequate information or they don’t understand the risks involved, because they do. The problem is that during adolescence, rewards are experienced intensely while costs are minimized. It’s an uneven scale. This happens because the adolescent brain releases significantly more dopamine in response to experiences than children or adults.

Unfortunately, this quest for dopamine squirts often comes in high risk forms like chemicals, sneaking out, hooking up, parties or risky posts online.

But as we now know, dopamine is also released in response to social rewards. One important way we can help teens is by giving them more opportunities to experience that feel good chemical by helping others and/or the community. These kinds of activities increase their psychological well being and happiness, build empathy and positive social skills and strengthen their moral compass. We ought to be prioritizing this the same way we prioritize academics and extracurricular activities.

Here are a few ideas of ways that you can implement more giving into your teen’s life:

  1. Consider paying them to volunteer like it’s a job. At first it may be about the money for them, but over time they’ll likely start to experience the intrinsic benefits of helping others.
  2. Model kindness and generosity. It’s important that your child observes you doing this on a regular basis.
  3. Help them get started. It’s easy to get teens to agree to this but they often won’t follow through because they don’t know where to start.
  4. Make it a non-negotiable expectation. Be flexible about the what, where, when and how but not if.
  5. Incorporate “giving back” into consequences. Forget about taking away the phone or grounding because it doesn’t work long term. Instead require them to do something kind or helpful for, or on behalf of, whoever has been impacted by their poor behavior.
  6. Little things matter the most. We don’t need to raise thousands of dollars for a cause or go on a mission to a third world country. The day to day actions and words we use matter the most. Buy someone’s lunch that isn’t expecting it, give a stranger a compliment or let someone know how much you appreciate them. In other words, random acts of kindness.
  7. Don’t get discouraged if they’re going through the motions. Faking it until we make it is often part of the process of learning new things. They don’t have to want to do it and it’s fine to grumble about it, they just need to do it.

Thanks for your continued persistence and commitment to helping your child be the best human being they can be. I know it can be hard and discouraging. Keep hanging on, they’ll get there.