A new study has suggested that children that act out and are rebellious are more likely to grow up to be kinder adults.
The new research from the University of North Carolina and Leiden University found that kids who drank, smoked, generally took risks and sought out fun tended to calm down as they aged, but continued to show more empathy than others.
As if they’d set out to scientifically prove The Breakfast Club true, the social scientists said their work is a reminder not to pigeon-hole people – especially teenagers – into negative stereotypes.
While their study was survey-based, the research team also notes that the link between socially positive and risky behaviors may be tied to a region of the brain that manages both types of impulses.
Frustrating though teenage rebellion may be to parents and teachers, psychologists and childhood development experts are quick to remind adults that pushing back against rules is a necessary stage of growth as kids form their own identities.
Adolescence begins around the age age of 10 and continues until people are around 19, though the exact period varies from child to child.
This is the time when they begin to stretch themselves and push boundaries.
It’s not just ‘hormones’ driving their seemingly rash behavior.
Adolescents brains are changing – and fast.
Their brains work differently from those of adults and, as a result, they act differently, too.
Major changes are happening in the frontal cortex of a young brain, the area that governs our reasoning to contemplate consequences before we act.
Meanwhile the number of connections between various cells and regions of the brain are multiplying as their ability to think and act on more complex motivation develops.
But the hairpin-trigger area of the brain, the amygdala, develops earlier in life.
So tweens, pre-teens and teenagers are fully capable of acting and reacting emotionally, their brains are still changing to give them the power to reason and act reasonably.
And during this same stage in life, adolescents are developing their social sensibilities, though these may seem at odds with their reactivity, periodic aggression, and disregard for what is expected of them.
Rebellious, risky actions may include disobeying rules and drinking alcohol or smoking.
During these activities, scientists have watched another area of the brain, called the ventral striatum become more active.
This region is closely tied to the sense of reward from doing something pleasurable or fun.
And it wakes up and becomes more active during ‘prosocial’ activities too, meaning those that benefit others.
Since both risk-taking and social development are such hallmarks of this life stage, the team of Northwestern University and Leiden University researchers wanted to know if they might go hand-in-hand to predict one another.
So they surveyed 210 youth in the Netherlands.
When they were first questioned, members of the group were between the ages of eight and 25.
They were then surveyed again two years later, and a final time another two years after that.
Each time they were surveyed, the participants were also given MRIs to monitor their brain activity in the two regions linked to risk taking and to prosocial behavior.
The children that were most rebellious, took risks and sought out more ‘fun’ also tended to have social skills that made them kinder and more understanding of others – exhibiting traits like empathy and an ability to see both sides of an issue.
And the fun-seekers and risk-takers were more likely to maintain their prosocial behaviors and remain empaths later in life.
‘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,’ said study co-author, Dr Eva Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
‘It also suggests that risk taking may serve positive goals, for instance, when adolescents take risks to help others.’
In other words, helping others instead of only behaving selfishly is a sort of risk-taking that rebellion may prime the brain for both types of daring behavior.
And for that reason, lead study author Dr Neeltje Bankenstein, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University says that maybe we ought to to judge teenagers that act out so harshly.
‘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’ she said.