In the summer of 2011, I did a dumb thing. Fueled by bravado, ego and vacation mischief, I gobbled down a “Man vs. Food” hamburger challenge, piled high with ghost chiles.
Ghosts are associated with death for a reason.
I writhed in pain, twirling in bed for 24 hours straight, like a scene right out of The Exorcist. My family vacationed while I strained to stay conscious, contemplating dialing 911 with every new, convulsing spasm. I’m not joking. It was the worst agony I’ve ever felt.
Neuroscience tells us the frontal lobes of male brains are fully-formed in their late 20s. Ostensibly, mine had been fully formed for a decade that summer. And yet, I swallowed the challenge — hook, line and molten sinker.
Social media was a shadow of its current self back then, but I’d be lying if I didn’t in some way want something fun to post, something to brag about, something to use to gain points. I love winning. Well, I didn’t win. I lost. Big time. Oh, I completed the challenge. Hooray for me. But, it nearly killed me … or so it felt.
“Never again!” That’s what my wife said. But my newly informed adult brain had beat her to the lesson.
Spring Break is upon us, and any time youthful brains have idle moments and opportunity on their side, there’s likely to be an internet challenge singing its siren song, beckoning them into the great oblivious oblivion. You’ve heard them all: the mannequin challenge, the ice bucket challenge, the cinnamon challenge, the Tide Pod challenge, the Momo challenge, the fire challenge, the In My Feelings challenge and one of the latest, the Bird Box challenge.
Some of these are rather innocuous, depending on how one chooses to stage their mannequinesque pose, for instance. But many of these challenges are downright dangerous. Hospitalizations and death have been frequent companions of these viral vices.
Newsweek published an article in 2016 about these challenges. And as I hinted at in my own adult experience, author Jessica Firger noted that our kids are especially prone to being pulled in by the magnetic attraction of some key chemistry quotients of the adolescent brain. Namely, dopamine. It feels good to be recognized by others. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, teaches that if it feels good as an adult, the feeling in the teen brain is otherworldly.
And there’s far less capacity for the executive functioning frontal lobe to slow down the decision fast enough to be sensible. Teen brains are far from being fully-prepped for adult decision-making. The science says so, reminds Dr. Jay Giedd, chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Enter viral videos of the shenanigans that create likes, clicks, shares and many an ER billing department dream.
So, how do we parents help our teens navigate this wasteland of wanton danger? Well, that requires us to take a trip to the past, through their awkward wonder years and into their infancy. Babies get their regulatory assurance from parents.
Attachment theorists all the way back to last century’s John Bowlby have long shown that the dance between parent and child, with child expressing needs and parent meeting needs, creates bonding, security and regulatory capacity. Children don’t regulate on their own needs at first. They interact in a collaborative way for regulation, with parents being the safe home base of secure attachment.
Something like this dance is key for our short-on-executive-functioning teens as well. Parents have to be the external regulator of the yet-to-be-fully-functional teen brain. I don’t mean this in any condescending way at all. And this isn’t to say that teens are bereft of decision-making skill, maturity or trustworthiness. Rather, it means that it’s much easier for that growing system of neural connections, chemicals and processes to go awry in young brains that love to be stimulated by new experiences, acceptance and recognition. The key is parental balance — not to hover too closely in a smothering stifling of growth and not to linger too aloofly in the distance, allowing dangerous decisions to teach their own harsh cold lessons.
Spring Break is here. By the end of it, there might well be a sensational new challenge that our teens are drawn toward like moths to flame. If not, the old ones still linger. You won’t always be successful helping your child avoid stupid behavior, but maybe, just maybe, you can share some of your hard-earned gray matter wisdom with them, teaching them the “why” behind their “what” and hoping beyond hope that it’s stickier than the duct tape holding one of their challenge-minded friends to a wall of Ides of March infamy.
Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the president of STARRY in Round Rock.