Why are teens more likely to make bad decisions at parties? 'Hot' contexts and four messages for parents to help protect their teens

Almost every parent of a teenager has experienced that moment of complete exasperation and bewilderment when their (usually) reasonably intelligent and thoughtful child does something so stupid and so seemingly out of character that it's almost too difficult to process! This could have involved them breaking a rule that you had thought you had made very clear, making a choice that just doesn't make any sense no matter how you look at it, or in the worst-case scenario, deciding to take part in an activity that could have realistically resulted in injury or death.

No matter how smart your teen is and no matter how strong a relationship you have with them, the fact of the matter is that all adolescents are going to make dumb decisions at some time or another. Adolescence is a period of risk-taking – it's an evolutionary feature to encourage them to "engage in high risk behaviour and leave the village and find a mate". Of course, as I have said in the past, it's not working too well at the moment because many young people are now living with their parents into their 30s! Making bad decisions, experiencing the consequences and then hopefully learning something as a result is an important part of growing into a fully-functioning adult. As much as you may want to protect your child from 'stumbling and falling', the fact is they have to …

The real problem with adolescents is that in certain situations, such as at parties when they are around their peers, they are far more likely to make bad decisions, and, in some cases this can lead to tragic consequences. The following story is so sad, but typical of when bad choices made by teens at a party can go so wrong …

Belinda's 16th birthday party was not an open-house, all she wanted was to have a few of her girlfriends over for a sleep-over. It was held in the back room, while her parents stayed in the front room, away from the action. With no adult supervision the girls started to drink and drink and drink … Seeing she was the birthday girl, Belinda drank quite a lot more than any of the other girls. In fact, she drank to the point where she passed out. Her friends knew they should do something to keep her safe but unfortunately they were drunk themselves and they got it all wrong.
Of course, what they should have done is to have called Belinda’s parents. Remember, they were just a room away. The girls were all scared, however, and terrified of getting into trouble, so they decided to look after the situation themselves. They had been taught the 'recovery position', so they put her onto a leather couch, laying her on her side with her head tilted back. However, instead of having her face the front of the couch, they put her facing the back. While she was lying down and unconscious Belinda vomited. As it was a leather couch, the vomit lay in a pool and did not sink in. As she was sick, she convulsed, her head rolling into the pool and she drowned in her own vomit.
Amazingly the girls did not leave Belinda’s side and had no idea that she had died. As she was facing the back of the couch, music was playing and they were all intoxicated, they did not notice that she had vomited or that her head had rolled into a dangerous position. It was about 20 minutes later that they discovered their best friend had died.

This was one of the very first alcohol-related deaths that I was involved with and it is a classic example of a group of young people making a series of terrible decisions at a party. The parents were in the next room for heavens sake, just a few metres away, but the girls decided to look after the drunk young woman themselves … When people hear stories like this the usual response is that we need to provide better education, i.e., if they knew the risks, they wouldn't do these silly things. That's true to a point – 'information is power' – and the more information we can give adolescents, the better. But sadly, it's not quite that simple – there are other factors to consider, particularly when it comes to the teenage brain. 

I've just finished reading Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, written by award-winning neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. It's a great read and she does a fantastic job of simplifying complicated research findings and making them accessible (although it can still be a bit dense in places simply because she talks about so many scientific studies). In the book she touches on the concept of 'hot' and 'cold' contexts and how these impact upon an adolescent's ability to make good decisions.

Studies have found that by the age of 15 or 16 teens can think just as maturely as an adult under laboratory conditions. Completing a task as part of a research project is an example of a 'cold' context (or cognition), i.e., a situation where there are no emotions, social interactions or pressures. Under these conditions they are likely to think through consequences and take less risks. When peers are present or elevated emotions/feelings or sexual tension comes into play (a 'hot' context), however, adolescents' ability to problem solve or make good decisions is affected. Blakemore provides the following example to explain the difference between the two: 

"If an adolescent is on her own, maybe walking back from school and focusing on what she needs to do when she gets back, and is offered Ecstasy, she's much less likely to accept it than if she is at a party on a Saturday night and all her friends are taking the drug. This is an example of a different decision being made by the same person in a cold and hot context." 

As she points out, this effect does not necessarily change completely when we become adults, i.e., no matter what our age, when we're around friends we're more likely to do things that we wouldn't do if we were alone. It's just that at this stage of brain development, teens are far more susceptible to a 'hot' context, such as a party. Another example, that I have discussed before, is a group of adolescents in a car together. We can keep providing them the best information, make sure they know all the risks and have them recite all the 'right' answers and responses when they're in the classroom or sitting at home with their parents, but when they hit the 'real world' and are around their peers and emotional arousal, it is highly doubtful that the same choices will be made. No matter how much we educate them, the reality is that really smart kids can do really dumb things, particularly when they're in 'hot' contexts such as a teenage party!

Parties and gatherings can be very dangerous events, particularly when alcohol is involved (either consumed before or drunk during the evening), but at the same time they play an important role in an adolescent's development, providing opportunities for young people to learn personal and social skills they need as they become adults. I strongly believe that if your child needs to go to a party (i.e., it's important in terms of their socialising and peer acceptance), you should try to find a way of making that happen. Now that doesn't mean you just let them go wherever and do whatever they want … If you call the host parents and don't like what you hear, but your teen desperately wants to go, you could say something like "I don't feel comfortable with this party but I can see you really need to go. You can go but I will be taking you, I will be picking you up and you will be there for two hours!" You put your caveats around the event to try to ensure your child is as safe as possible …

Try as you might, you can't protect your child from every possible thing that could go wrong on a Saturday night. They'll make mistakes or the people around them will do something stupid but hopefully they'll still make it through the other end relatively unscathed (most of us can remember a night when 'everything went wrong' and we're still here!). Of course, as they get older you've got to give them a little more freedom to make those mistakes and learn as a result. That said, it is important that parents understand that parties are particularly 'hot' contexts (i.e., peers are present, emotions are high, and there is likely to be a great deal of sexual tension) and, as such, even the smartest teen is far more likely to make a bad decision at some time or another. No-one can tell you how to parent your child and when it comes to parties, only you can decide what works for you and your family. That said, when it comes to keeping your teen as safe as possible in this area, I believe there are four simple rules/messages around parties that every parent should consider:
  • do your best to always make an informed decision about whether they can attend or not. Work out the questions you want answered, tell your child what they are and make it clear that they will not be able to go unless you have that information (I've suggested four questions in a previous blog entry)
  • only you make the decision on how they get there and how they get home. I believe this is the only 'non-negotiable' when it comes to parties. The best option is for you to take them to where they're going and pick them up whenever possible. You may have a social life, however, so sometimes you're going to have to hand this over to someone else. Whoever that is, make sure you talk to them (using words from your mouth – don't text!) and confirm details
  • ensure your teen knows that they have your total support should they need to call 000. The main reason why young people do not call an ambulance is that they're frightened their parent may find out – that is shameful! Repeat this message often and tell them they should call 000 and then call you
  • whatever rules you make in this area, get the best quality information you can and then 'follow your heart'. Put simply, if it doesn't feel right, don't do it! It doesn't matter what your sister-in-law or your best friend, or even your parents tell you – it's your child, your own precious jewel – only you can make the rules, because when it comes down to it, you have to live with the consequences 
References
Armstrong, T. (2016). The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. Alexandria: ASCD.
Blakemore, S.J. (2018). Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. London: Penguin Books.

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