Researchers found pathways that support adolescents’ development of rebellious and helpful behaviors

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Research shows that risk-taking behaviors, such as binge drinking, may increase throughout adolescence.

At the same time, so can prosocial behaviors (behaviors that involve doing good to benefit others).

A new longitudinal study from the Netherlands sought to determine if these behaviors are related and whether certain brain regions can predict them.

The study found that the two behaviors may be related and that both behaviors may be motivated by teenagers‘ efforts to have fun.

The study was conducted by researchers at Leiden University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

It is published in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

“We sought to test the pathways that support adolescents’ development of rebellious and helpful behaviors,” explains Neeltje E. Blankenstein, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University, who was first author of the study.

“Because adolescence is often associated with negative stereotypes, our findings provide a more nuanced view on adolescent development by focusing on the relation between risk taking and prosocial behavior.”

Researchers examined 210 youth who were part of the Braintime study, longitudinal research conducted in the Netherlands in 2011, 2013, and 2015.

The participants were ages 8 to 25 years at the start of the study, ages 10 to 27 when they were surveyed the second time, and ages 12 to 29 when they were surveyed the last time.

Participants completed questionnaires each time they were surveyed, reporting on how often they engaged in rebellious and prosocial behaviors.

They also reported on their tendency to seek out fun or rewarding activities, and their social skills – specifically, empathy and social perspective taking, which the authors define as the ability to understand others’ viewpoints (e.g., understanding both sides when two peers disagree).

Each time they were surveyed, the participants had a magnetic resonance imaging scan to measure the maturation of two brain regions – the nucleus accumbens and the medial prefrontal cortex – to determine whether these areas, which are important for risk taking and prosocial behavior, predicted the behaviors.

The final time they were surveyed, participants reported on their rebellious or risk-taking behaviors, such as getting drunk and smoking, and on their prosocial behaviors, such as helping and comforting others.

The researchers found that:

  • Rebelliousness increased from early adolescence to late adolescence before declining into adulthood, and prosocial behavior peaked in mid- to late-adolescence.
  • Rebellious behavior and prosocial behavior were positively related to one another, even when controlling for age – that is, the more risk-taking behavior an adolescent showed, the more likely he or she was to behave prosocially.

The study also found that:

  • More prosocial behavior was predicted by more empathy and greater long-term increases in perspective taking.
  • More risk-taking behavior was predicted by greater increases in what the authors termed fun seeking – the tendency to seek out fun and exciting activities.
  • At the same time, this fun-seeking trait also predicted more prosocial behavior, suggesting that fun seeking leads some adolescents to develop risk-taking behavior and others to develop prosocial behavior. This suggests that the same developmental processes may result in both types of behaviors, the authors note. Fun seeking also predicted a combination of high risk taking and high prosocial behavior, indicating that some adolescents are prosocial risk takers.
  • The study pointed to some evidence that faster adolescent brain development (i.e., faster maturity) of the medial prefrontal cortex predicted less rebellious behavior. Activation of this region has been found to relate to risk taking, and this study showed that faster long-term structural development of this region also predicts risk taking.

Among the study’s limitations, the authors acknowledge, are that their questionnaires measured only behaviors of interest to the study and did not look at risk taking and prosocial behavior in the lab or in real life.

They recommend that follow-up studies test a wider range of rebellious and helpful behaviors and include experiments in the lab. In addition, because the questionnaires relied on self-reports, the authors say they may be biased by social desirability, that is, by participants answering in ways they thought would make them look better.

“Our study suggests that fun seeking may be a trait that leads to diverse aspects of adolescent development, and that adolescence is a time of both vulnerabilities – seen in risk taking – and opportunities – seen in helping behaviors,” according to Eva H. Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who co-led the study.

“It also suggests that risk taking may serve positive goals, for instance, when adolescents take risks to help others.”


Risk-taking behaviors refers to participating in behaviors which probably lead to some aversive consequences (Boyer, 2006).

In general, it includes negative risk-taking behaviors, sometimes called problem behaviors, and positive risk-taking behaviors that is challenging but relatively socially acceptable (Özmen and Sümer, 2011).

The former includes smoking, binge drinking, drug use and unsafe sexual behaviors, and so on, whereas the latter includes bungee jumping, skiing, and diving and other risky sports.

During the last decade, scholars have paid much attention to negative risk-taking behaviors, such as alcohol use (O’Hara and Cooper, 2015Passos et al., 2015), substance use (Jacobus et al., 2013Wood et al., 2013), sexual risk taking (Downing and Bellis, 2009O’Hara et al., 2012) and so on, because negative risk-taking behaviors not only do harm to adolescents’ physical development but also have adverse impacts on their psychosocial adaptation.

For comparison, the current study also put emphasis on negative risk-taking behaviors and tried to find out those risk factors or buffers for adolescent negative risk-taking behaviors. We did this job according to Problem-Behaviors Theory (PBT; Jessor, 1987), a psychosocial perspective focusing on the Personality System, the Environment System, and their interaction, which believes that individual behavioral performance needs to be studied from the perspective of development, as well as the interactions between the three systems.

Self-control is an important factor in the Personality System, which is defined as the ability of human beings to suppress automatic, habitual or innate behaviors, impulsiveness, emotion, or desire, otherwise these behaviors will interfere with target oriented behaviors (Muraven et al., 2006), which glasses a struggle between urges, desires, and inhibitory forces (Hofmann and Van Dillen, 2012).

That is to say, individuals with high self-control are theorized to have abilities to inhibit impulses and resist immediate pleasures (Hay and Forrest, 2008), while individuals with low self-control including traits like urges and feeling seeking (Doran et al., 2011) are thought to be the opposite. Meanwhile, the role of self-control in adolescent adjustments has obtained much attention empirically.

For example, higher level of self-control is correlated with better physical and mental health (Tu and Yang, 2016); increased self-control is linked to decreased aggression (Keatley et al., 2017) and reduced involvement in gambling behaviors among adolescents (Belle and Tammie, 2015); there are significant negative correlations between self-control and school violence (Agbaria and Daher, 2015Zimmerman et al., 2015); those adolescents whose impulse control deteriorated during secondary school also had a higher risk of using substances during high school (James et al., 2016).

Accordingly, the current study also took self-control into great account linked with adolescent risk-taking behaviors.

One of contextual factors that may have great influences on adolescents is family. Of particularly important is parent-adolescent relationship.

As a positive feature, parental support for basic psychological needs has a positive relationship with the Psychosocial adaptation of children and adolescents (Tu et al., 2016). Parents mostly provide emotional and instrumental support for adolescents and build psychological connections with them (Shakespeare-Finch and Obst, 2011), and emotional support is believed to promote children’s internalization of social values and criterions (Patterson et al., 1989), making children more sensitive to social hints before action. Instrumental support is linked to practical assistance, playing a prominent role in offering advice and guidance to their children (Cheung and Sim, 2014).

For example, Padilla-Walker et al. (2016) found that parental warmth was positively related to adolescents’ pro-social behaviors; low instrumental support was associated with lower self-perception and higher level of depression (Wang et al., 2018), and there are negative associations between perceived parental support and behaviors problems (Yun et al., 2016), such as alcohol use (Maslowsky et al., 2016).

Similarly, an inverse relationship has been found between perceived familial support and cigarette smoking (Hamid et al., 2015).

However, the tendency of adolescents to think that parents are absolutely authoritative is declining (Fuligni and Eccles, 1993) and adolescents demand more autonomy (Laursen and Collins, 2004), leading to an increase in conflicts with parents (Steinberg and Morris, 2001).

As Atkinson et al. (2005) put forward, when conflict took place during family discussions or communications, one’s emotional circuits in the brain were stimulated at the same time and it became increasingly difficult for an individual to reset his or her mind.

As a result, their attention to information of externalizing behaviors is not enough. Considerable research has revealed the relationship between conflict and negative consequences for adolescents.

For example, it has been found that conflicts between parents and adolescents are related to antisocial behaviors (Sentse and Laird, 2010), alcohol use (Chaplin et al., 2012Abar et al., 2014), etc. Note that positive features and negative features of relationships are independent, not opposite ends of a continuum (Laursen and Mooney, 2008), independently predict adolescent externalizing problems, internalizing problems, and academic achievement (Adams and Laursen, 2007).

Thus, it is important to focus on the effects of the two aspects of parent-adolescent relationship, support, and conflict, simultaneously, on adolescent adjustments.

Based on PBT, when the proneness in the Personality System and the Environment System is taken together, the combination may generate psychosocial tendency to make the prediction and explanation of problem behaviors.

For example, positive emotionality can act as a resilience effect of a connection between parent-child clash and material use of adolescents (Wills and Sandy, 2001).

Also, the associations of perceived parental support with aggressive or delinquent behaviors tend to be negative for adolescents with high empathy but positive for those with low empathy (Van der Graaff et al., 2012).

Among persons with good self-control, risk factors (such as negative life events) have a reduced impact on drug use (Wills et al., 2008).

As an individual’s self-control increases, they require less social support to achieve subjective well-being; however, those with lower levels of self-control experience the opposite (Zhang and Xing, 2007).

It can be seen that self-control can moderate the relationship between environmental factors and social adaptation.

However, work examining whether adolescents varying in self-control are differentially influenced by parent-adolescent relationship, especially on adolescent risk-taking behaviors, is really limited.

To our knowledge, no studies have tested whether self-control moderates the association between parent-adolescent relationship and risk-taking behaviors among adolescents.

Therefore, in consistent with research indicating that low studious control and conflict between parents and adolescents is a common risk factor for depression, as well as participating in antisocial behaviors in adolescents (Wang et al., 2013), parent-adolescent conflict and low level of self-control in the current study are also expected as risk factors for adolescent risk-taking behaviors.

Also, according to the risk-enhancing model (Fergus and Zimmerman, 2005), low self-control, as a risky factor, increases risks of low level of parental support.

Accordingly, we hypothesized that low level of perceived parental support and high level of parent-adolescent conflict would increase adolescent risk-taking behaviors at low level of self-control while not at high level of self-control.

Lastly, note that adolescent risk-taking behaviors might predict parent-adolescent relationship as well.

Transactional model provides theoretical support for this possibility, which holds that development is the result of a sustained and dynamic two-way interaction between individuals and their environmental experience (Sameroff and Mackenzie, 2003).

A follow-up study on adolescents found that internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors in the pre-test significantly predicted parenting attitudes and behaviors in the post-test (Buist et al., 2004).

A cross-lagged panel model also revealed a reciprocal association between mother-adolescent relationship quality and adolescent antisocial behaviors (Crocetti et al., 2016). Accordingly, we established a competitive model in which adolescent risk-taking behaviors were the predictor, while parent-adolescent relationship was the outcome and hypothesized that more risk-taking behaviors would lead to poorer parent-adolescent relationship.


More information:Child Development, Behavioral and Neural Pathways Supporting the Development of Prosocial and Risk-Taking Behavior Across Adolescence, DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13292

Journal information:Child Development

Provided by Society for Research in Child Development

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