Teen Risky Behavior

Teenagers and risk seem to go hand in hand. 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.

While it’s very stressful for parents, it’s a normal rite of passage for teens to be drawn to risky behaviors. The process of forming their own identity pushes teens to seek new experiences, express strong viewpoints, find belonging among people outside their family, and rebel against boundaries. In addition, teens tend to understand risk differently from adults, too, which means they don’t see any real danger in what they’re doing.

The key for parents is to protect their children from the most dangerous risks while still allowing them to push boundaries and develop their independence. Let’s first explore the types of risks teens take and why, and then we will consider what parents can do to help their teens stay safe.

Common Risks Teens Face

Parents may worry when their teenager engages in risks such as:

  • Fighting,
  • Skipping school,
  • Engaging in sexual activity,
  • Smoking, drinking or other substance use,
  • Dangerous driving, or
  • Crime, such as trespassing or vandalism.

Reasons Teens Take Risks

Most teens have legitimate reasons for feeling drawn to taking risks. We can feel a lot more empathy if we understand why teens make a risky choice. Here are a few, but certainly not all, reasons for risk-taking in adolescence:

  • 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. In addition, brain changes that are occurring during adolescence make teenagers more focused on the reward they feel when they are included in a group or admired by their friends.
  • Lack of experience. Honestly, sometimes youth make poor choices simply because 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. And, even if they’re not bored, there are some teenagers that simply 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, so they try to demonstrate that they are ‘different.’
  • Poor self-esteem. A young person with low self-esteem may not feel strong enough to say no to others or they may want attention, even if it is negative attention.
  • Media. Movies and television project a wide range of risky behaviors in ways that make the person appear glamorous or admirable, while still avoiding any negative consequences.
  • 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 prevent and/or address 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. Positive risk-taking is about learning new things and exploring unfamiliar territory. For some teens, simply trying something new or meeting new people can be a risk, while others might need an adrenaline-charged sport to get their thrill. Talk to your teen and suggest ideas for exciting activities that will fill up their free time, such as trying an extreme sport, entering a competition, joining a new club, expressing an unpopular opinion in class, taking up rock-climbing or mountain biking, learning how to play a new instrument, or trying out for the school play.

Stay connected. Keep communication open with your teen and stay involved in your teen’s activities. If you are in tune with your teen’s interests, friends, and frustrations, you will be able to: 1) identify if and when they are at risk of making poor choices, 2) make suggestions for activities that your teen will actually like and embrace, and 3) know your teen’s maturity level so that you don’t give your teen more freedom than they’re able to handle. Finally, always know who your teen is 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. 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. Help your teen evaluate the risks in their decisions. Walking teens through the process of considering the potential positive and negative outcomes of a choice will teach teens how to weigh risks in their future decision-making. Whenever possible, 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 and make good choices.

Final Thoughts…

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.

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