As a parent, you want your children to be safe. As kids grow into teens, the start to push their boundaries and take risks. Sometimes, those risks can be dangerous, but not always. Find out what to do about teenage risk-taking, and how to prevent your teen’s exploration from going farther than is healthy.
Teenage Risk-Taking is a Natural Part of Development
As teens grow and their brains develop, they naturally want to explore their world, their bodies, and their relationships. This exploration is natural, and healthy. It can help build confidence, develop physical abilities such as strength or balance, and improve their social interactions with peers.
Sometimes that exploration will lead to risky behaviors. Parents, especially, who are used to guarding their children against environmental dangers, can sometimes have trouble letting their children take risks and fail. It is important to recognize that some teenage risk-taking is healthy, and even beneficial, allowing your teenager to grow into a well-grounded adult.
However, not all risky behaviors are positive experiences. A high-risk decision can have negative consequences. In some cases, it can also result in unhealthy outcomes, or lead to self-destructive behaviors. Parents need to recognize the difference between healthy exploration and unhealthy risk taking, so they know when to step in.
Get Help with Teenage Risk-Taking Behavior
Talk to a psychotherapist today about how to parent adolescents engaging in self-destructive and risky behaviors.
Positive Exploration vs Negative Risk-Taking Behaviors
Healthy risk-taking and exploration involves doing something new or challenging a teen hasn’t done before. When the risk is successful, your teen will feel empowered and have increased confidence to take on the next challenge. When a healthy risk is unsuccessful, it can teach important lessons about how to deal with disappointment or frustration. Positive exploration experiences might include:
- Trying out for a new sport or club
- Learning to play a musical instrument
- Engaging in outdoor activities like rock-climbing, rafting, or hiking
- Learning to drive
- Making a new friend
Negative risk-taking and self-destructive behaviors often involve dangers that aren’t immediately apparent. Some, like criminal behavior or drug dependency, can impact a teen’s life for years or even decades to come. Schools, religious organizations, and parent groups put a lot of money and time into educating against teenage risk-taking behaviors with severe negative consequences. These include:
- Distracted driving (texting while driving)
- Drug use
- Vaping and tobacco use
- Binge drinking
- Theft, vandalism, or other criminal behavior
- Risky sexual behavior
Teen Decision Making Sometimes Leads to High-Risk Choices
Parents and teachers often assume that teenage risk-taking is a result of their inability to evaluate risk. But neuroscience doesn’t back this up. Adolescents are just as good as adults when it comes to evaluating the risk of a broad range of behaviors. And they do them anyway. This may have more to do with the strong emphasis the teenage brain places on peer relationships, acceptability, and the resulting peer influence. Teenagers are chemically more sensitive to the neurotransmitter rewards for positive peer interactions than adults. That can motivate teens to make a high-risk choice, just because they want to feel the rush of positive peer evaluations, and avoid the negative experience of being excluded.
What to Do About Teenage Risk-Taking
If your child has begun to take risks, you can help their teenage risk-taking behaviors toward healthy, constructive activities, and away from choices that could hurt them and their future.
- Get involved in your teen’s life. Check in with them, plan activities together that you enjoy, and spend time together.
- Talk about how you make decisions. Share your family’s values and morals and help them understand your own choices around possibly risky behaviors.
- Encourage your teen to explore their interests.
- Offer to supervise healthy risk-taking experiences, such as trips to a skate park, climbing gym or zip-lining.
- Help them find ways to volunteer and connect with their community.
- Get to know your teen’s friends and understand who they spend time with.
- Help your teen work through difficult decisions, pointing out long- and short-term effects on themselves and others.
Adolescence is a time for teens to define themselves separate from their parents or family, but that doesn’t mean you need to leave them to make their own bad choices. Through modeling, supervision, and open communication, you can help them define their own identities without putting themselves at risk of harm.
David Stanislaw is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. He helps adults, children, teens and with parenting, self-destructive behaviors and other mental health concerns. Contact David Stanislaw to get help today.