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Teenage Risk-Taking: How To Handle It

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Taking risks is a normal and common part of adolescence. There are things you can do to help your child stay safe - and ease your own anxiety.

Why teens take risks

Although it can be stressful for parents, adolescence and risk-taking go hand in hand. This is because teens need to explore their own limits and abilities, as well as the boundaries you set. It’s part of their path to becoming independent young adults. Teens need to express themselves as individuals, which is part of developing their identities.

Also, the parts of the teenage brain responsible for impulse control don’t fully mature until about age 25. This means teens are more likely to make impulsive, emotional decisions without thinking through the consequences.

And, teens want to be accepted by their peers. Some teens take risks because of peer pressure.

Common teen risk-taking behaviour that can cause parents concern include:

  • fighting
  • truancy
  • risky sexual behaviour
  • alcohol use
  • use of illegal substances (mainly marijuana)
  • tobacco smoking
  • dangerous driving
  • illegal activities like trespassing or vandalism

Reducing risk-taking

Knowing that it’s normal doesn’t make teen risk-taking any easier to live with. Here are some ideas to limit risk-taking and keep your child safer:

  • Help your child learn to assess risk. You can talk about other people’s behaviour and its consequences (for instance, in movies or on the news). Ask your child what they think the consequences might be. If they aren’t sure, you could share your ideas. For example, “If he hadn’t been speeding, he wouldn’t have lost his license.”
  • Work out some agreed ground rules with your child. Explain to her that you want to work out ways to keep her safe. Decide together on what the consequences should be if the rules are broken. You’ll need to be flexible and adapt the ground rules as your child grows and shows she is ready for more responsibility.
  • Talk about values - the earlier the better. Knowing what’s important to your family will help your child develop a sense of responsibility and personal values.
  • Keep an eye on your child. Knowing who he is with and where he is can help you prevent some risk-taking behaviour.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Try to stay connected to your child. Strong connections with parents reduce the chance of risky teen sexual behaviour.
  • Be a good role model. Teens are guided by how their parents behave. If your child sees you applying double standards - from speeding to excessive drinking or aggressive behaviour – she might not respect your rules.
  • Encourage a wide social network. You probably can’t stop your child from being friends with a particular person or group - but you can give him the chance to make other friends through sport, community or family activities. Make your child’s friends welcome in your home – you’ll know where he is at least some of the time.
  • Give teens a way out. If your child feels pressured to take risks to fit in, you could help her think of ways to opt out without losing credibility. For example, she could tell her friends that smoking gives her asthma. Let her know she can send you a text message anytime she needs to be picked up, without worrying that you’ll be angry. 

Encouraging “safe” risk-taking

Teens need to take some risks to learn more about themselves and test out their abilities. Try channeling your child’s risk-taking tendencies into safer and more constructive activities. Adrenaline-charged sports like rock-climbing, martial arts, snowboarding or mountain biking can supply plenty of thrills. Some teens might find they love the “rush” of performing in drama or creative arts.

Another strategy is to give teens autonomy and independence in some areas, so that they can explore their freedom without resorting to rebellion. Autonomy is your teen’s growing ability to think, feel, make decisions, and act on her own.

Try allowing your teen to make her own decisions about things like hairstyle, after school activities, and bedtime.

Getting support

Risk-taking is a fairly normal part of adolescence, and most teens won’t take it to the extreme.

If your child occasionally stays out past curfew, you might not worry too much. But if he regularly does things with dangerous consequences - like using alcohol or other drugs, getting into fights or breaking the law - consider seeking help and support. Also seek help if you’re worried that your child’s behaviour is self-destructive or might be a sign of a deeper problem.

If you’re having a hard time talking with your child about risk-taking, it might help to ask a relative or trusted family friend to broach the subject. Some teens find it hard to talk about sensitive issues like sex and drug use with their parents, but they might be willing to talk to somebody else. You could also ask your child’s school counsellor for advice.

Did you know: Risk-taking is an important way for teens to learn about themselves. It can include less concerning behaviour, such as trying new tricks at the skate park, or expressing an unpopular opinion. It peaks at around 15-16 years and tends to tail off by early adulthood.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

Here to Help: Mental Health and Substance Use Information You Can Trust 
Talking to Your Adolescent or Teen about Problems
Growth and Development, Ages 11-14 Years 
Growth and Development, Ages 15-18 Years 
How Adolescent Thinking Develops

Last Updated: November 30, 2014