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Teen rebellion marks subconscious separation from parents

Researchers track the brain activity of teens watching peers engaged in risky behavior

The rebel, embodied by James Dean, and a 1950s TV mom portrayed by Barbara Billingsley. (Photo illustration/USC News)
The rebel, embodied by James Dean, and a 1950s TV mom portrayed by Barbara Billingsley. (Photo illustration/USC News)

The rebel has a cause.

Using brain scans, USC psychology researchers have found that teenage rebellion is a sign of teens separating from parents in their transition to adulthood.

The team believes this study is the first of its kind to record images of teenage brains as they responded to separate videos of their peers and parents.

Researchers tracked the brain activity of 22 teens, ages 16 to 18, through Magnetic Resonance Imaging and found that the MRIs of teens who reported engaging in the most risky behaviors — sex, drug use or reckless driving, for example — were more responsive to watching videos of other teens than videos of their parents.

“The more they were activating a central part of the brain to the unfamiliar peer versus to their parents, the more risky the behavior was that they were reporting,” said Darby Saxbe, assistant professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Researchers observed that when the rebellious teens saw the videos, a central region of their brains responded more to their peers than to their parents. In fact, the MRIs revealed a spike in activity in the precuneus — a portion of the brain that controls awareness about the thoughts and behaviors of others.

Although studies have shown that teens tend to hang out more with their peers than their parents as they reach adulthood, Saxbe said that parents shouldn’t let their teens separate entirely. She said that the results seem to indicate that parents should be sure to maintain a strong bond with their children, even when they become adolescents.

Based on this study, the potential lesson for teens and their families is “Keep your friends close but your parents close, too,” Saxbe said.

The study was published in Social Neuroscience.

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Teen rebellion marks subconscious separation from parents

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