Ep. 16: Born to be Wild with Dr. Jess P. Shatkin

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In Episode 16, I talk with one of our country’s foremost experts on adolescent mental health, Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, about his parenting book, Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. We cover a range of topics about teenagers and parenting, including sleep, social skills, summer camp, being present with our kids, teen decision making, and more. I highly recommend listening if you have 34 minutes!

Dr. Jess P. Shatkin

I highly recommend Born to be Wild to parents of pre-teens and adolescents, as well as to school administrators and camp professionals. Shatkin offers important insights about why teens take risks and how parents and adult mentors can help prevent some of the more dangerous risk-taking.

The book is based on Shatkin’s vast experience counseling, teaching, and working with adolescents as a clinician. In it, he clearly outlines why the current educational efforts on important issues like sexual activity, dangerous driving habits, and alcohol and drug use don’t work and how there is a vital need for a completely different approach, one that he has developed and practiced through his Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies (CAMS) program at NYU.

Says Shatkin, “If we have enough time with students, we can actually have a huge impact through these character education efforts.” His prescribed approach focuses on teaching teens about risk and resilience, role playing specific scenarios, and having pro-social adult role models.

Shatkin has positive things to say about summer camp experiences, as well, and notes that camp counselors can serve an important role by providing adolescents a few years younger than they are with something positive to strive for. Shatkin commented about his own camp experiences, “I thought my camp counselors were the greatest people in the world. I remember everything they taught me.”

Some of Shatkin’s insights are ones many of us already know but aren’t necessarily doing enough about. Those insights revolve our kids’ sleep, screen use, and the importance of staying involved in our adolescents’ lives. Shatkin’s specific, research-based recommendations offer the motivation parents may need to make some changes at home around sleep schedules and screen use.

There are additional insights that were new to me and gave me a lot to think about in how I am raising my teenage sons as well as how I can more positively influence the adolescents with whom I work at camp, both the campers and the young adult counselors.

One insight from Born to be Wild I shared with my husband and teenage sons was about Shatkin’s research on how teens actually make risky decisions, which is not what most of us have believed. Parents and others have incorrectly thought that teenagers’ poor decisions were based on an inability to properly think through consequences due to their not-quite-developed brains. Actually, the problem is teens spend too much time thinking and rationalizing their actions. Teens don’t feel invincible and actually estimate the chances of something bad happening to them as greater than they actually are. But they will rationalize making poor choices “in the moment” rather than just using a decision-making skill that experienced adults use more often to more consistently make good decisions. Shatkin calls this more advanced decision making skill, which requires less (not more) thought, “gist” thinking. Experienced adults don’t think about many variables before making a decision. Instead, they use their previous experience to always, for example, make the decision to use protection when having sex (unless they are trying to get pregnant). Teens, who often were not even planning to have sex and therefore don’t have protection with them, think about different variables and rationalize in the moment that it’s okay to have unprotected sex.

If you’d like to read more about Dr. Shatkin or listen to his weekly radio show, here are the links:


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