The Reasons Behind Teens’ Risky Behavior And What Parents Can Do
Ever had that moment where you want to ask your teen, “What were you thinking?!?”
Unfortunately, as teens walk the path of becoming independent adults, exploring their limits and abilities is part of developing their identities. Risk-taking is an important way for teenagers to learn about themselves. It peaks at around 15-16 years and tends to tail off by early adulthood.
It is very stressful for parents, but teens are drawn to risky behaviors, and it’s a normal rite of passage. The key for parents is to protect their children from the most dangerous risks while still allowing them to develop their independence.
Common Risks Teens Face
Parents may worry when their teenager engages in risks such as:
- Skipping school,
- Engaging in sexual activity,
- Smoking, drinking or other substance use,
- Dangerous driving, or
- Crime, such as trespassing or vandalism.
The type of risks your teen is drawn to varies by gender. Boys are more likely to experiment with fighting and skipping school. Girls have slightly higher rates of smoking.
Reasons Teens Take Risks
Brain power. The part of the brain responsible for impulse control does not fully mature until about age 25. This means teenagers are more likely to make impulsive, emotional decisions without thinking through the consequences. Sometimes, they don’t have enough life experience to be aware of all of the possible dangers.
Unhealthy optimism. Teens tend to think that negative outcomes will only happen to other people. It doesn’t feel real to them, and so the possible negative consequences don’t deter them.
Adventure. No teen likes feeling bored. If your teen is under-stimulated, they may try risky behaviors for excitement. There are some teenagers that love the ‘rush’ of adventure and seek out new and exciting experiences.
Peer pressure. Research shows that risk-taking among teens doubles when peers are around. Some teenagers want to be accepted and fit in, so they do what is considered ‘normal’. Others are eager to impress their friends, or demonstrate that they are ‘different’.
Media. Movies and television project a wide range of risky behaviors in ways that make the person glamorous or admirable, while still avoiding any negative consequences.
Poor self-esteem. A young person with low self-esteem may not by very assertive or have the will to say no to others.
Expressing independence. As part of growing up, teens sometimes define who they are by going against the established order of things.
What Parents Can Do
Knowing that teenage risk-taking is normal doesn’t make it any easier to live with, but you don’t have to sit back and watch it happen with dread. Parents can take steps to channel their teen’s risky behavior into something positive and reduce the chances of serious consequences. Here are some strategies to help address and reduce risky behavior:
Encourage healthy risks. Try to guide your teen’s risk-taking tendencies towards more appropriate activities. There are plenty of safe and constructive risks that might satisfy your teen’s need for thrills without veering into dangerous territory. For some teens, simply trying new things or meeting new people can be a risk, while others might like an adrenaline-charged sport to get their thrill. Talk to your teen and suggest ideas, such as trying a new trick at the skate park, learning how to play a new instrument, joining a new club, expressing an unpopular opinion in class, taking up rock-climbing or mountain biking, or trying out for the school play.
Stay connected. Keep communication open with your teen and stay involved in your teen’s activities. Don’t give your teen more freedom than he’s able to handle, and know who they are with and where they are.
Role model. Teens are guided by what they see their parents do a lot more than what their parents say. Make sure you are modeling healthy decision-making. In fact, when you’re faced with a difficult decision, talk the issue out with your teen so that they can see you brainstorm different options and weigh the pros and cons of each idea. Teens can learn a lot when they are part of a conversation that demonstrates a parent’s decision-making process in cases such as whether or not to move, switch careers, make a major purchase, or agree to participate in a new activity.
Teach risk assessment. Use real life examples to explain other’s behaviors and consequences. Perhaps your neighbor lost his license because he drove drunk. You can discuss how he not only lost his license, but he won’t be able to keep his job since he can’t drive there, and the DUI will be on his record for any future employers to see.
Teach life skills. Parents should work to instill positive character and life skills in their children. Discuss what makes a good leader, how to solve problems, and tips to be assertive. Teens armed with these qualities will develop a sense of responsibility and be more likely to stand up to peer pressure.
Although risk-taking is a fairly normal part of adolescence, some teenagers take it to the extreme. If your teen regularly engages in dangerous behaviors, such as using drugs, getting into fights, or breaking the law, seek help and support. Ask your family doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional.