Notre Dame professor sheds light on adolescent risk behavior


Dr. Daniel Lapsley believes American civilization may owe its future to the generation of young people who are now in high school and college.

Sometimes referred to as “Generation Z” or “iGeneration,” those born between about 1995 and 2015 were raised in a world awash with smartphones and other networked yet hyper-individualized technology.

“They’re by and large much more tolerant of others. Our culture is so whacked-out and toxic. I think they’re going to be what saves us from that,” said Dr. Lapsley, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame and senior academic advisor for the Alliance for Catholic Education.

He gave a lecture on adolescent risk-taking, as part of Note Dame’s Hesburgh Lecture Series. It was sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of Central Missouri and held at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia.

About 30 people attended.

Dr. Lapsley has devoted most of his career to developing a deeper understanding of why adolescents behave the way they do.

Dr. Lapsley noted that adolescence brings a 200-percent rise in mortality rates compared to childhood, attributable to a tendency to engage in riskier behaviors, and the fact that teens are often under less adult supervision than children are.

However, he pointed to several studies suggesting that the incidence of young people indulging in such things as reckless driving, alcohol- and drug-use, fighting, self-harming and sexual activity in this country is actually dropping.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control, risk behavior among adolescents is going down,” he said. “Remember, we’ve been scaring the heck of out them their whole lives.”


Pedal to the metal

These downward-sloping statistics are little consolation to parents who constantly worry about their teens’ safety.

Acknowledging that such concerns are hardly new, Dr. Lapsley shared several theories about what often leads to risky of behavior among young people.

“The transformation of the adolescent brain which happens with pubescence may have biological roots,” he stated. “It encourages people, especially males, to leave the nest and go out on their own.”

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology for brain imaging and the mapping of brain activity, scientists now know a lot more than they did even 10 or 20 years ago.

Dr. Lapsley said that between about age 10 and 15, the cells in the parts of the human brain that experience emotion become more integrated and start firing 3,000 times faster.

Meanwhile, the parts of the brain that handle critical thinking, reason and risk-control tend to mature later — usually by the mid-20s.

“So the gas pedal is ‘to the metal’ before the breaking mechanism is fully engaged,” he said. “This pattern of uneven brain maturation in young teens encourages them to seek novelty and reward and stimulation before the parts of the brain that regulate all of that catch up.”

This often causes a radical shift in sleep patterns and in how young people interact with their parents and their peers.

“All of this makes them more emotional, more responsive to stress, more likely to engage in reward-seeking behavior,” he said. “So if your teen is moodier, more withdrawn, more prone to sensation-seeking, it’s natural.”

Studies have shown this to be particularly true when young adolescents, especially boys, are with a group of peers that are the same age.

“The more the merrier? More like: the more the scarier, especially when they’re behind the wheel,” said Dr. Lapsley.

However, teens acting on their own or even with a young adult mixed in with their same-age peers dramatically improves their decision-making.

“So we know that risk behavior is situational,” he said. “We know that sometimes, peer contact might be what sets the brain’s reward-seeking circuitry on fire.”

“We know that monitoring by adults is important,” he said. “And somehow, we have to provide constructive ways for young people to direct their sensation- and reward-seeking to social-building ends.”

Slogans and scare tactics generally don’t help, he asserted.

“What do help are interventions that address the context in which kids make decisions,” he said.

Home life matters.

“Family connectedness is one of the most important protecting factors for teens,” he said.


“Connection is important”

Dr. Lapsley said teens whose parents are knowledgeable about their activities — who know their daughter’s or son’s friends by name, for example — are far less likely to engage in risk-oriented behavior.

At the same time, adolescents have a growing need for individualization and autonomy.

“Connection is important, but it has to be flexible,” he said. “You have to give your children room to breathe, some arena of discretion so they can make some choices.”

He said authoritative parenting — with clear rules, boundaries, structures and expectations, but also highly responsive, open lines of communication and clearly expressed warmth and affection — leads to the best outcome.

Schools must be in a strategic alliance with families.

“When youth feel a connection at school, they are less likely to do delinquent things,” he said.

He believes that’s one of the major benefits of Catholic schools.

“This is in our DNA!” he said. “We use the language of family all the time. It’s our most dominant metaphor.”


Enjoys his job

Dr. Lapsley, who teaches an undergraduate course in adolescent psychology, said he enjoys teaching college students about themselves.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “Everything we talk about in class can be evaluated in light of their own biography, their own history, their own memories.”

After some lively banter with the audience in Columbia, Dr. Lapsley said this was one of the best discussions he’s had at a Hesburgh Lecture.

Gwendolyn Roche, principal of Tolton Catholic, said the discussion was timely and relevant.

“Our parents are always in conversation with us about how we can best work together for the benefit of their children and to have this type of information available is very worthwhile,” she said.

“Dr. Lapsley did a wonderful job,” she added. “He was very personable and easy to communicate with and a pleasure to listen to.”

Representatives of the Family Access Center of Excellence (FACE) of Boone County (, which promotes access to mental health for families with children, handed out information about the free services it provides for teens.

Named in honor of Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, who is credited with elevating the university’s stature during his 35 years as president, the Hesburgh Lecture Series provides “meaningful continuing education opportunities for Notre Dame alumni and friends.”