What is it about teens and fast cars?

Last weekend, when I heard about a group of 100 “hoons” doing speed trails down the M1 from Brisbane to the Gold Coast and reaching speeds of over 200km per hour, my heart skipped a beat.

I know I’m not the only one whose heart skips a beat when they hear or see people driving fast, losing traction (doing donuts and burnouts) or driving dangerously, but I also know that the reasons people’s hearts are skipping are very different. For me, when I think or hear of fast cars, my head goes back to all of the people I have seen who have been affected by a motor vehicle accident. I have worked for many years with those who have been injured on the roads and families who have lost a loved one in a motor vehicle accident. I’ve also seen many young people who have been convicted of culpable driving – those who have killed someone (usually their best mate or their girlfriend or even a pedestrian) because they have been driving too fast and lost control. My heart beats in despair at the danger and the ripple effect among family and community.

For many people, though, the sounds of hooning make their hearts race for a different reason.

Their hearts race with excitement. Their eyes open wide and their mouths just grin. It’s almost the same dizzy look on the face of a young person in love.

There are some people who are very attracted to driving (or riding a motor bike) at crazy speeds and putting a car through its paces. How do we help these people, often teens and young adults, enjoy their passions but also stay safe? To do this, we need to understand what drives (pardon the pun) their passion and how they are thinking.

A lot of the things we know about a teenage brain, we can see really clearly when we look at their driving behaviour. We know that the teen brain goes through various structural and chemical changes over the adolescent years that explain much of their behaviour.

We know that a brain going through the teen years undergoes changes to its pleasure centre. During adolescence, it can take more to stimulate or make a person happy and excited. It takes more to make something register as pleasurable. It’s like things need to be turned up. Music needs to be louder. Sweets need to be sweeter and dramas need to be more dramatic. For some, driving a fast car registers as pleasurable and turning up the pleasure means driving faster or driving louder. Some dangerous drivers do it for the thrill and for the adrenalin. They love living on the edge and driving fast or doing tricks in a hotted up car.  It takes them to the point where they feel absolutely thrilled – even more so if the young person might be depressed or grieving.

Another thing we know about the teen brain is that it is wired to be social. Risk taking behaviour is much higher in the presence of someone that a teen wants to impress. The other tricky thing about having a very social brain is that it is wired to prioritise social things. If we look at reaction time (the time a person takes to see something, think about it, and react to it), a teen’s reaction time is very quick. This means that a teen will get their foot to the brake quite quickly if needed. As we age, our reaction time gets slower. Elderly people have the slowest reaction time. However, if we put another teen near our fast reacting teen, their reaction times will become slower – slower even than the elderly.

The teen brain is more interested in what’s happening on the inside of the car than what’s happening on the outside of the car. That’s part of the reason there are special rules for people on their “P” plates that limit their passengers. Lives have been saved by these changes.

Rules, definitions and consequences of hooning vary from State to State in Australia.  Consequences generally involve fines and vehicle impoundments and serious and repeat offending can result in a prison sentence.  In Victoria, VicRoads run a Safe Driving Program. If someone is convicted of a hooning offence, their vehicle is impounded and they can be mandated by the Courts to do the VicRoads Safe Driving course. The course is designed to help them consider their unsafe driving, to look what motivates it and helps drivers to come up with a plan to reduce risk and drive more safely to avoid further expensive or lethal consequences.

As part of the VicRoads Safe Driving Program, drivers go through exercises to look at the purpose or function that motivates their unsafe driving. Young people (in fact not just the young) drive fast for many different reasons. Like many troubling behaviours that humans engage in, driving cars of motorbikes fast, replaces something that is missing in their life or helps them to avoid unpleasant feelings. In this way, unsafe driving is akin to many other things people do to try to make themselves feel happier or competent – substance use, alcohol, or gambling.

Some drivers take to the road to wind down or to let off steam. Nothing says “I’m really angry with you” like spinning the wheels and taking off noisily and rapidly down the street.

Some, but certainly not all, may drive dangerously because they are anti-social and angry with the world and it’s their way of demonstrating that they don’t care what anybody thinks.

Some youngsters (and perhaps some who are not so young) enjoy being a hero in their vehicles. They enjoy the adulation from friends or flocks of girls/guys. Sometimes it’s the way they bond with other members of the family. Often, if they’ve never had this feeling of being adored or belonging, it’s very attractive.

Others drive fast or ride their motorbikes fast because they feel “at one” with their vehicle. It’s almost like the vehicle is an extension of themselves – almost meditative. As the sway and glide, they feel a peace and a joy.

Some love to handcraft, build a vehicle from scratch, modify it and then take it out to see what it can do. They enjoy the mastery of a craft. Sadly, though, they can have an over-inflated sense of how much control they have on the road. There are many things that happen on our roads that are outside of our control, no matter what your driving skills.

In all, hooning and fast driving seems to meet some of the social, identity and risk-taking needs that are characteristic of the teen years –especially if young people have no other ways to meet these needs, bond and belong.

We need to ensure young people don’t put all of their interests or pleasure sources in the one basket. We need to help them with ways to express and manage their feelings without needing a motor vehicle to do so. We need to make sure that we have places where young people who love cars can exercise their passion safely. We also need to have rules that help keep all road users safe and consequences for people who break those rules.

#PeaceInParis: Talking with Children about November 13

The terrible news of the killings in Paris is already flooding screens repetitively and there will be more and more images and discussions to come. News like this is, understandably, big and has a big effect on our mood and the thoughts and feelings we express out loud.

When things like this happen and there is a change in mood, the younger people in your household may have questions or they may be, also understandably, quite distressed by what they see and hear.

What words can possibly explain the complexities of terrorism attack on innocent people? We owe it to our children to give then the information they need to process it all in the ways that help them understand, but also in ways that don’t distress them.

Different children will react in different ways to big, terrible events. Some of this difference will be due to their age and abilities to get their thoughts around it all. Preschoolers may be upset because they can see it is upsetting the grown up in their life. Teens might be upset because of the injustice and unfairness of it all. Children will also have difference reactions based on their own individual temperaments and coping abilities. Some sensitive little people may have more questions and be more unsettled by the news. Some may have recently lost a loved one and the grief may be fresh in their minds.

If you have little folk in your household, try not to expose them to long hours of repeated news coverage. These days, there are many ways that you can quickly keep up to date. Exposing yourself to lengthy, repeated, footage can make you feel helpless and vulnerable as well so tune out form the long haul and just check in from time to time.

Don’t try to avoid the news or hide it from your children. Be sure to check to see if your children have any questions or worries and do your best to answer them. If you cannot answer them, it’s okay to let your child know that you don’t know that answer.

Some things in life we just don’t know yet, but there are lots of things we do know….we know that some people will be sad, we know that people will be angry, we know that people will be working hard to make things safe again, we know people will have different ideas about what is important and …. (this is a great time to tell your kids) that you know they are super-important to you.

With the big screens off for awhile, it would be a great time to spend time with the family. You could break out a board game or a pack of card or go for a walk or family bike ride. Do some things you enjoy doing as a family.

Celebrate our freedom to do lovely things with our kids by doing lovely things with your kids.

Reassure worried children that they are safe and that members of their family are safe. You might like to find a globe or a map and show them where Paris is compared to where they live. It’s also important to emphasise that while it is a terrible thing that has happened in Paris, it’s a very rare thing. Big, terrible, rare things always make the news. Daily, happy, fun things still happen, but they don’t often make headlines.

Some little ones who are more easily upset, may need you to spend a little longer with them at bed time until they settle. Try to stick to the evening routines and as you say your “good nights”, remind them of the lovely plans you many have together for the very next day.

If your child feels sad, encourage then to express their sadness. They may kike to draw a picture or make a card to send to someone. They may like to donate some of their things to a charity. Helping others or doing nice things for others is a way that we can feel better when we have little control over a big world event.

If you have a little one in your household, or indeed, if you yourself, struggle to settle after a few nights and days and distress starts to interfere with the day to day things needed in life, be sure to check in with your General Practitioner.


You may also be interested in understanding more about young people and terrorism  or if you need to talk further with your child about grief and death, Life is Like the Wind can help.




Do I measure up? Am I a #freak? – Young people and body image

Should you be worried if your daughter leaves all but her lettuce leaf on her dinner plate….or your son is at the gym for the fifth time already this week? What do you say if your child is on his second plate of bacon or won’t wear the school sports pants because it “makes my bum look big”?

Our body image is the way we see, think, feel and behave with regard to our bodies.

Body image has more to do with our perception of ourselves and others than it does with our body’s measurements. It is not surprising then, that if someone is feeling unhappy about themselves, about where they fit in their family, with their friends and with their world, that they can target their body as tangible source of dissatisfaction. Extreme body image problems can lead to all sorts of dangerous problems that include serious eating disorders. Body image can be a factor in self harm and suicidal behaviours.

In my many years of clinical practice, the research into eating disorders has advanced considerably, but it is still considered among mental health professionals to be one of the most difficult and intractable mental health disorders among the young.

Traditionally an area for teen girls, we are finding that eating disorders are starting to creep – they are creeping across genders with more males diagnosed, creeping to earlier ages of onset, and creeping to more presentations in the elderly as well.

The human body is one incredible machine.  From its earliest moments of creation where cells divide and specialize, through to the coordination of learning to walk, the miracle of learning to think and speak, the amazing ability to coordinate ourselves to accomplish all manner of things, to fight off disease, no other creation on Earth comes close to the totality of what a human body can do. So, what can happen to cause a person to develop such an unhealthy relationship with their own body?

There are a number of factors that seem to be linked with unhealthy body image. Understanding some of these may give us insight into how we can talk with young people about their bodies in ways which could promote healthier images or perceptions of their amazing bodies.

One factor we know about is age. Body image issues can arise at any age and some people have spoken to me about children as young as three of four mentioning that they are concerned about being “fat”. Clearly, given that much of our sense of self and our urge to belong or fit in, peaks in adolescence, so we do see the teen years as a time where we begin to notice more body image issues. Adolescence is also a time of increased growth, change in body fat distribution, changed sleep cycles and increased appetite and desire for sweet eats. If these changes co-occur with other distress, the link between body image and life dissatisfaction can be made – especially if other factors rewarded, criticized or modeled by influential friends or family cement the link.

Certain sorts of young people may be more prone to body image distress. Those who are perfectionistic, highly competitive, high achievers or those who are often benchmarking themselves in comparison to others are more prone to body image issues. So, too, young people who are very rigid in their thinking (“black and white”) who find it hard to find compromises or to meet some middle ground can be more at risk of unhealthy body images. They tend to make lots of rules for themselves around food, eating, shape, size and achievements so they judge their bodies very harshly if they think that they are not reaching a certain benchmark.

If a young person feels badly about themselves and the world because they have other issues with self esteem or depression, this can also affect their body image. Low self esteem or a depressive episode can be linked to unhealthy body image.

Teasing can negatively affect body image. So many of the young people I have seen in my practice for body image issues can pinpoint a time or day where someone teased them in relation to their body.

It may be that their brother has told them that their “bum does look big in that” or their “tuck-shop lady arms”. Being teased seems to lock in an association between feeling unhappy and having a body that does not measure up in the eyes of others.

Family and friends who are obsessed with diet and exercise can be a big problem. While cardiologists may be happy with this trend, I have seen more and more of these families over recent years. The families I get concerned about are the ones where the teen, despite being a healthy height-weight ratio, is criticized or teased for eating “Jatz crackers” after school or because they would rather sleep-in instead of getting up for early morning boot camp. It is not hard to see where these teens might begin to link feelings of dissatisfaction to their bodies – their families are modeling and, perhaps inadvertently, telling them that they don’t measure up.

In addition to families who have many food rules and strict exercise regimes, family or friends who constantly talk about body shapes – their own or others – are risky when it comes to teen body image. Researchers and authors of “If you’re fat, then I’m humongous” found that women often talk about being fat because they think it is a way of feeling better about themselves, but it actually has negative impacts on body image, rather than positive ones.

These days, in addition to traditional media, young people are also exposed to social media. New research about Facebook, the “selfies” and images portrayed has just been done at Melbourne University.  They found that those who make comparisons to other bodies on Facebook (usually their close friends) internalized a thin ideal and were more dissatisfied with their bodies.

The thing about Facebook (and perhaps many other forms of visual social media),  is that it provides a constant stream of comparison to images where much effort has been put into covering or deleting blemishes, carefully straightening hair, mastering the “hip-bone-propped-forward selfie stance” and all unfavorable pictures have been deleted, un-tagged or edited away.

When you step back and consider it, our young people (and ourselves) are frequently bombarded with messages that could easily set them up for poor relationships with their own bodies. We need to arm them with the knowledge and experiences to buffer them against the onslaught.

Be sure young people have a have a range of things that they are good at and enjoy. Psychologists refer to it as experiencing “pleasure and mastery”. It does not particularly matter what area or activities it involves, but it is important that there is space in young people’s lives for small pleasures and for doing things, however small, that they feel they are reasonably good at. Not too many rules and not too much benchmarking, just things that give them regular opportunities to experience warmth, pleasure and some self satisfaction. Physical activity is always a great option, but don’t beat your young people up to get them to engage or expect that a teen will want to wake up pre-dawn for that gym class.

It is also important that we help young people broaden their horizon and look outward rather than spend too much time alone with their thoughts. To think about helping others rather than competing or benchmarking themselves with others is important.

Crucial to a young person’s healthy body image is the role modeling at home. Make less/no fat talk, less/no food and exercise rules and more family fun and acceptance of diversity. Oh, and while I’m at it, less/no materialism and social comparison. There’s nothing like a family who feel like they need to keep up with the Joneses to engender a sense of dissatisfaction in the household.

Help your kids be media savvy – not just about body shape or size, but also about aging and wrinkles.

Help your kids understand that to sell a product or to gather a following, people will try to make them feel bad or dissatisfied. It won’t help young people, but it well help profit margins. Also, remember to let them know that this extends to the cleverly crafted advertisements that pop up in their social media feeds as well as in video content they may watch on the internet.

Have a word to those who are prone to tease in your family and your extended family. Traditionally, this would be the fathers, step fathers and brothers, but maybe this is changing? Be sure to explain to them the role that easing can play in body image issues and step in to stop it when you see it slip out again. Also, have a word to those who are being tease about the reasons people do such “dumb stuff”. Help the teasers and the teases find some other way to communicate and to find some mutual ground.

Remember, and spread the word, that our bodies are amazing – whatever their shape, age, wrinkliness, sagginess, bounciness or wobbliness. We should do what we can do to let them work at their best, but not be slaves to too many hard and fast rules about how best to operate them.

Guidance, experience and guidelines…not rules, measurements, health “guru-freaks” and rigidity.

For other information on body image, try the Butterfly Foundation ,  https://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/ or the great fact sheet at http://www.nedc.com.au/files/Resources/Body{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}20Image{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}20Fact{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}20Sheet.pdf