Teenagers can get a kick out of taking risks, but all that seems to change when they’re with mom. According to a new study, the adolescent brain processes risk and reward differently when mom is paying attention.
In the study, teenagers participated in a task where they made decisions that involved weighing risk. They did so inside an fMRI scanner so that researchers could monitor the teens’ brain activity. Each teen completed the risk-taking task either in the presence of their mother or in the presence of an unknown adult.
It turned out that what went on in the teens’ brains depended on whether it was their mother or a random adult standing in the room.
When mom was around, regions of the brain involved in reward processing were more active when the adolescents made safer decisions, and were less active after the teens decided to take risks. In other words, the teenagers’ brains appeared to be calibrated to derive a greater sense of reward from playing it safe in the presence of the teenagers’ mothers.
On top of that, when the researchers looked at which parts of the brains were working together during decision making, they found that teens’ brains evaluated risky decisions in a more adult-like way when mom was in the room. Together, these findings led the researchers to title their paper Mother Still Knows Best: Maternal Influence Uniquely Modulates Adolescent Reward Sensitivity During Risk Taking.
The study only looked at adolescents’ risk-taking propensities in the presence of either mothers or unfamiliar adults, so it’s unclear how other adults like fathers, grandparents, teachers or family friends might influence teens’ evaluations of risky situations. But at the very least, the results suggest that mothers can help their teenage children learn to judge risk better and to become more adult-like in the way they weigh potential danger and potential reward.