Article Summary & Info: This article examines adolescents level of cognitive control and risk taking comparing adolescents with negative families with adolescents with positive families. The authors hypothesized that “Since adolescents undergo significant neural change, negative parent–child relationship quality may impede or alter development in prefrontal regions subserving cognitive control.” (McCormick, Qu, & Telzer, 2015). In other words they are testing whether the stress of negative parent-child interactions may hinder or change the development of the prefrontal area which is related to cognitive control and thus, risk taking behavior. Adolescents completed a test of impulsivity while undergoing two fMRI studies a year apart. Results indicated that adolescents who reported worse family relationships showed increases in risk taking behavior which was accounted for by increases in ventral lateral prefrontal cortex activation over the course of the year.
Importance: This study points out the importance the quality of parent-child relationships during adolescence for the development of risk taking behavior. This is especially pertinent since the study showed actual changes in brain functioning linked to impulsivity occur for adolescents in negative family relationships and this is the factor that explains adolescent risk taking behavior. This means that family therapy is very important in preventing dangerous risk taking in adolescents that occurs through impulsive decision making.

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Personal: I think this study is important because it takes some of the blame off of adolescents for behaving recklessly. Most adolescents don’t have great relationships with their parent, that’s part of the process of growing up and wanting more independence and autonomy while parents don’t think their child is ready for this. Family life during adolescence can become very conflictual and negative. If this type of relationship is related to changes in brain functioning in an area that controls cognitive impulsivity then this would affect impulsive and risky behavior in adolescents with negative family relationship which is likely most of them. While this won’t explain all of adolescent risk taking behavior it is clearly something that could be worked on to decrease the problem. Improving family relationships is also something that would make family life less stressful for all members and also impact other physical processes that are effected by stress. When I see adolescent patients, especially if they come in for injuries related to risky behavior, instead of assuming I need to speak with the adolescent about the problem I will also elicit information about family dynamics from the adolescents view points and the parents’ viewpoints then bring everyone together to discuss it as a family. If more help is needed I will know the importance of referring them for family therapy and not just referring the adolescent for individual therapy.

  • McCormick, E. M., Qu, Y., & Telzer, E. H. (2015). Adolescent neurodevelopment of
    cognitive control and risk-taking in negative family contexts. NeuroImage.