The Blog

Lisa Graham Keegan: Help your child face the unknown

The follwing post comes courtest of Lisa Graham Keegan, member of our National Advisory Board and education advocate.


As summer begins to wane, and the new school year approaches, we parents feel conflicted. While the advertisement that has the father skipping through aisles of school supplies singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” may not feel exactly right…it does resonate, especially if we are parenting adolescents.

If it’s any consolation, your child feels the same way. And that is a good thing.

For young people around the ages of 12 to 15, the pull to separate from families and be with new friends becomes very strong. And that pull is not only the result of cultural norms. Our children’s drive to leave our homes and immerse themselves into the lives of their friends has a biological basis. It is driven largely by their developing brains.

Neurological studies have disclosed that a person’s drive to experience what they call a “neural buzz”, sort of a “high” produced by novel experience, peaks around age 15. It explains a lot.

Because so much of our job is to keep our children from harm, most of us probably read that news about “buzz seeking” and just want to get our kids safely past this stage. It is without question a time that can lead to risky behavior such a drug and alcohol experimentation. But the drive to experience novel sensations and to conquer the fear of the unknown is actually something your child could not survive without.

Wanting to experience new and unfamiliar surroundings is what drives us to leave the confines of a very secure home and family in order to seek out new people and new experiences. It is critical for parents to remember that there is as much “buzz” to be had in making new friends, joining a new sports team, or spending time in community projects as there is in dangerous behavior.

The key factor is that kids this age are driven to experience novelty and conquer their fear of it.

So there is a bit of irony here. The more we shelter our children, confining them to spaces they already understand how to navigate, the more we bump heads as teens look to achieve the “neural buzz” they seek. Keeping a child “safe” at home might be a serious risk.  Instead, think of new and challenging experiences for your child as something that will feed a serious need.

Make sure you are consistently providing your adolescent with more and more independence, encouraging them into activities that will be at least slightly unsettling. Conquering the fear of the unknown in constructive ways, over and over again, will mean there is far less need to seek novel sensation in dangerous settings.  And of course, make sure you talk with your kids early and often about the risks and consequences of underage drinking.

So enjoy these last lazy days of summer, and get ready to immerse your child in the unknown. It’s a life saver for everybody!