Parents of Teens: Encourage Exploration, But Set Limits

If you’re the parent of a teen interested in improving your teen’s social skills, you probably spend time reading up on teen psychology.

Here’s a theme, or trope, you likely see all the time:

Life is about experiences. The more new, diverse experiences you have, the more you learn and grow. The more you learn and grow, the happier you become. Variety is the spice of life.

It makes perfect sense.

The more you do, the more you know. The more experiences you have, the greater your chance of finding out what makes you happy, and the greater chance you have of then repeating those experiences and increasing your overall level of wellbeing. Experiences are also how we learn who we are and find out how we want to navigate the world. We don’t learn the biggest life lessons by sitting around and thinking about doing things: we learn them by getting out there and doing things.

We get out there and we have experiences.

If you’re the parent of a teen, you probably say variations of this to them all the time. You tell your teen they’ll understand things when they have more life experience. When they have setbacks at school, with friends, in sports, or pursuing hobbies, you tell them things like this:

“Life is about the process, the experience of learning, as much as it is about the product, or succeeding at everything you try, every time you try it.”

Right?

We tell our teens these things because they feel real and true to us based on our lived experience. In that way, life is like an experiment: we try things, we analyze the results, and we arrive at conclusions. That’s how experience teaches us things. But that leads us to two questions:

What does real science have to say about new experiences?

Do they really make us happier?

That might also lead parents of teens to the following question:

New experiences are good – but is seeking new experiences dangerous?

Recent research in behavioral neurobiology has answers to all three of these questions.

The Science of Experience: Does Diversity Help?

Behavioral neurobiologists – the people who study the relationship between the human brain and human behavior – have a funny way of saying things.

For instance, instead of variety is the spice of life they say things like this:

“Experiential diversity confers substantial benefits for cognitive and affective function.”

They have to be careful with language. All scientists do, in fact, because once they publish a paper in their field of study, scores of others in that field of study dissect their research with a fine-tooth comb, looking for flaws in their method, analysis, and results.

But we digress.

Let’s look at the evidence for that statement about experiential diversity.

In controlled laboratory settings using the rodent model, experiential diversity facilitates, increases, and improves levels of:

  • Play
  • Social connectivity
  • Optimism bias
  • Stress resilience

By experiential diversity, research scientists refer to an enriched living environment. Whereas laboratory rodents most often live in single cages with food, water, bedding, and in some cases, a running wheel, an enriched environment is completely different. Rodents may live in family groups in large, open-plan enclosures, with elements they can explore, objects to chew and play with, and other elements that encourage movement. Think of the difference between a simple animal crate and the Habitrail habitats families used to buy for pet gerbils or hamsters: that’s the difference between a standard living environment and an enriched living environment.

An enriched environment changes their behavior.

But does it change their brain?

Enriched Environment and The Brain

Yes, it does.

In the rodent model, individual rodents living in enriched environment show changes in two important brain regions:

  • The hippocampus
  • The striatum

In addition, rodents in enriched environments show increased connection in the hippocampal-striatal circuit. The hippocampal-striatal circuit is directly involved in identifying new elements in the environment – called novelty detection – and encoding both reward and positive emotional states. By encoding, we mean when an individual has a rewarding experience that leads to positive emotion, the connections between the hippocampus and the striatum – the hippocampal-striatal circuit – strengthen, increase, and become more efficient.

Based on this research-verified evidence in the rodent model, behavioral neuroscientists have theorized for years that the same would be true for humans: novel experiences are rewarding, lead to positive mood, and increase the function of the hippocampus, the striatum, and the hippocampal-striatal circuit.

However, before 2020, no research on humans tested this hypothesis. This article will discuss two experiments performed to fill this research void. The first, published in 2020, examined the effect of novel experience in humans on the hippocampal-striatal circuit and mood. The second, published in 2022, examined the effect of novel experiences on mood, social connectivity, and risk-taking in human adolescents, as compared to young adult humans.

We’ll start with the first paper.

New Experiences, Brain Connectivity, and Mood

The results of the first experiment appear in the paper “Association Between Real-World Experiential Diversity and Positive Affect Relates to Hippocampal–Striatal Functional Connectivity,” published in July 2020.

To test the hypothesis that “experiential diversity confers substantial benefits for cognitive and affective function” researchers recruited 132 participants in New York City, NY and Miami, FL. Researchers tracked the movement of each participant continuously over three to four months. During the tracking phase of the experiment, participants answered smartphone-based surveys to record their mood as either positive or negative. After the tracking phase of the experiment, researchers collected brain images of each participant, with a focus on the hippocampus, the striatum, and the hippocampal-striatal circuit.

Here’s what they found:

  • Daily variability in location and movement correlated with increased positive mood
  • Daily variability in location and movement correlated with increased functional coupling of the hippocampal-striatal circuit.
  • Increased functional coupling of the hippocampal-striatal circuit correlated with increased positive mood

These results confirm the hypotheses based on the rodent model: the more diverse the daily experience, the better the mood, and the greater the connectivity between the hippocampus and the striatum.

We’d also like to note a result from this study we found amusing: participants reported positive mood more frequently on the weekends than during the middle of the week. For obvious, reasons, we’re not surprised: are you?

Now let’s move on to the next experiment, which should be of particular interest to parents of teens.

New Experiences, Mood, Social Connectivity, and Risky Behavior

Confirmation of experimental hypotheses often result in follow-up experiments on related topics. In this case, the lead researchers on the paper above decided to apply what they learned about novel experiences, positive mood, and the hippocampal-striatal circuit to daily behavior among adolescents and young adults.

In the paper “Real-World Exploration Increases Across Adolescence and Relates to Affect, Risk Taking, and Social Connectivity,” the research team investigated the following:

  • Whether daily exploration – i.e. going new places and seeking new things – varied with age
  • Whether daily exploration had an impact on social connectivity, risk taking, and positive mood

To test this hypothesis, researchers recruited 58 adolescents and adults in New York City between the ages of 13 and 27. Using smartphone-based geolocation technology, researcher tracked their movement constantly over a three-month period. During the tracking period, participants answered smartphone-based surveys to record their mood, social connections, and the types – risky or typical – of behavior in which they engaged.

Here’s what they found:

  • Days with higher levels of exploration correlated with greater positive mood for all participants
  • Participants with higher levels of exploration reported larger social networks, as determined by interactions via phone calls and direct messages
  • Participants between ages 18 and 21 showed the highest levels of exploration
  • Adolescents – participants between ages 13 and 19 – with higher levels of exploration reported higher levels of risky behavior, including:
    • Gambling
    • Drug use
    • Drinking

A lead researcher on both studies, Dr. Catherine Hartley of New York University (NYU) in Manhattan, discusses the results in this press release published by NYU:

“These findings point to an important role for exploration in sustaining adolescent well-being and establishing social connectivity. And while risky behaviors undoubtedly pose challenges, a healthy amount of exploration is important, particularly as individuals become adults, gain independence, and form their identities.”

This is important information for all parents of teens. An adolescent needs to explore, experiment, seek out and have new experiences in order to learn about the world, establish a supportive social network, and enhance their overall wellbeing.

But what about the risk?

Create Opportunity, Manage Risk

This is a million-dollar question:

How do you let your teen explore the world and keep them safe at the same time?

The answer:

There will always be some level of risk – but in most cases, you can control how the amount.

That’s the trick. As the parent of a teen, it’s important to encourage them to get out in the world, have new experiences, meet new people, and learn new things. Here’s a short list of suggestions about how you can do that and maintain some level of control – without being controlling.

Freedom – With Boundaries: A Short List for Parents of Teens

1. Say Yes.

When your teen receives an invitation to do or try something new, keep an open mind. You don’t have to say yes sight unseen, of course, but try to avoid a categorial “No” to new experiences. Think about their suggestion, research the suggestion, and decide if the new experience is worth it. Your job here is to know more about the experience they suggest than they already do. Research what they want to do, identify potential problems, create parameters for them that mitigate danger and increase the likelihood of a positive learning experience.

2. Model Responsible Curiosity

Show your teen what it is to engage in safe exploration. For instance, if you’re curious about whitewater kayaking, then arrange a short, easy trip first – one that doesn’t involve dangerous rapids. Do not buy a kayak and try out a Class V section of rapids the first time: that might literally kill you. You can work up to the dangerous, exciting rapids one step at a time, with the benefit of instruction, repetition, and – wait for it – experience. When you model this process, your teen sees how it’s possible to take reasonable risk, have fun, and stay safe.

3. Boundaries are Essential

Our perspective is that in order to thrive, teens need boundaries. That’s why we establish curfews even for teens we know aren’t planning to stay out late. It’s why we set limits on where, when, and who they can ride in cars with, or invite as passengers when and if they start driving. That’s why, when they first learn to ride a bike, we tell them not to go past the stop sign in one direction, and not go past the big gray house at the top of the hill in the other direction. Sure – they might crash their bike between here and there – but probably not. That’s far different than allowing them to get on their bike, ride out of the neighborhood, and experience four-lane roads where cars regularly exceed the 45-mile-an-hour speed limit.

Eventually, they need to understand how to navigate that four-lane road – but that is absolutely not where to start. The same is true for your teen and boundaries: eventually, they have to figure out how to navigate the dangers of the world independently – but in the beginning, you set the parameters for the dangers they may encounter, and allow them to learn how to navigate those dangers one step at a time.

In the end, the old adage is right: variety is the spice of life. We learn from new experiences. The things we do add up to the things we know, and the things we know enhance our lives and improve our future experience: it’s a virtuous cycle. For teens, new experiences help them learn who they are, gain valuable knowledge about the world, expand their social connections, and improve their overall mood and wellbeing.

What this means for parents is that yes, you should allow – and encourage – your teen to try new things and have new experiences, but for their safety and your peace of mind, it’s important to set reasonable, practical limits and boundaries.