Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Born to Be Wild

Get your motor runnin’ | Head out on the highway |

Lookin’ for adventure | And whatever comes our way … 

I am a pop culture midget and even I know this song by Steppenwolf. What makes this sixties classic so compelling? What is it about the idea that we are born to be wild that is irresistible? As adolescents, we identify with the raw energy of this song. As adults, we fantasize about that time in our lives when raw energy made life intoxicatingly intense and wild. Some of us even make the mistake in the crisis of midlife to try to go back to that time (but that’s for another Five on Friday…).

So as my adolescent kids head out for a party that starts as I am heading to bed, I run through a checklist of safety reminders – stick with your friends, make sure your phone is charged, don’t drink the punch at the frat party, etc. Responding to the prevailing idea that our kids think they are invincible, I act as if reminding them of all the risks out there will somehow keep them safe.

But it doesn’t work.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist, Jess Shatkin, tells us in his newly released book, Born to Be Wild, that no matter how much we tell our kids they are at risk, it won’t change their behavior. How can that be?

1. Adolescents already know about risk. They actually overestimate risk. Adolescents don’t need to be told about the hazards of drinking and driving, or having unprotected sex. In fact, they are inclined to grossly exaggerate the danger of engaging in such behaviors.

2. Adolescents also overestimate themselves. Adolescent thinking goes like this: Having unprotected sex will result in a sexually transmitted disease more than 75% of the time (actually not), but I have better than average judgment about people, and I know my partner doesn’t have anything to spread. Psychologists call these two errors of judgment “pluralistic ignorance” (i.e., Others don’t know how to protect themselves from the known risk) and “optimistic bias” (i.e., I know all about the risk, but I know better than others what it takes to protect myself).

3. And don’t forget the dopamine frenzy. There is more dopamine flowing in the adolescent brain, and the adolescent brain is more responsive to dopamine, than at any other time in our lives. An essential neurochemical, dopamine plays a central role in our reward system and in promoting learning. In adolescence, we head out on the highway and take risk to get those intense hits of pleasure. The risk taking ensures the survival of our species by teaching us about what is pleasurable and what matters for survival – like eating and procreating.

4. Adolescence lasts longer than you think. Adolescence has its roots in the Latin, adolescere, meaning ‘to grow to maturity.” Historically, adolescent and teenager were synonymous. But modern studies of the brain tell us adolescence starts sooner and lasts longer. At least in terms of brain development, adolescence begins during the “tween” years and the neural drama of this phase of brain development and pruning isn’t finished until well into our twenties.

5. So what are parents to do? We fret for the safety of our kids. This makes total sense given the rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, and accidents as well as opioid and other drug-related deaths among our adolescents today. In Born to be Wild, Dr. Shatkin brings home the futility of lecturing our kids about risk. He makes adolescent risk taking make total sense – essential to healthy development of judgment, self-esteem, resilience, and self-knowledge. It’s even essential to the survival of the species. Dr. Shatkin also offers wisdom as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and as a parent on how we can help our kids find that sweet spot of healthy risk taking.

Born to be Wild makes brain science and social science research come to life in understanding our own adolescence and that of our kids. As Dr. Shatkin says, we are perfect parents until we have kids. Then reality hits. That’s when a book like Born to be Wild is an essential read.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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