Youth and Tell

The health and wellness of our children

Risky Business: Why Teens Need Risk to Thrive and Grow

Why taking risks is an important part of adolescent development.

Have you ever caught yourself saying things like: "I can't believe she did that! She knows better!" If you're like most parents, then you've not only said them, you've probably tossed in a few four letter words for good measure. Raising a teenager is risky business and yet it remains one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. After all, risk is part of everything teens say, do, eat, sleep, and breathe. As such, parents often try desperately to find ways to deal with dangerous risk-taking by trying to inflict punishments to no avail. Exasperated and exhausted, they often fear the worst will come of all of this risk-taking, as they imagine ten years from now their curfew-breaking, school-skipping son will end up on the other side of the law. Such is the fate of parents with teenagers: Risk and youth go hand in hand.

Remember all of the risky things you did as a teen? Keep those in mind before condemning your adolescent to a life of crime. I am as guilty as any teenager of doing some things I'd rather pretend I did not. Yet somehow, I think I've turned out alright -- at least my daughters tell me so when they are not calling me totally "uncool." My point is that it's not only important, it's expected that adolescents take certain risks to mature and grow into healthy, law-abiding adults.

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According to a recent study by University College London, risk-taking behavior peeks during adolescence, suggesting that teens are "programmed" to take risks more often than other age groups. The same study also found that teens took risks because they liked the thrill of risk-taking as opposed to not being able to understand the consequences of their behavior.

Positive Risk-taking:

Contrary to popular belief, not all risk-taking is bad. In fact, many risks are not only good, but promote healthy neurological development and growth during the critical adolescent period. Risk-taking and rule-breaking is linked to developmental changes in the brain that serve to help teens become healthy, analytical adults. Thus, a certain amount of positive risk-taking is necessary for adolescents to fulfill their universal need for independence, developing a separate identity, and testing authority.

All teens need to learn how to take risks. While adolescence typically marks the onset of negative risky behavior such as unsafe sex, dangerous driving and alcohol and drug experimentation, there are certain risks that teens should be allowed and even encouraged to take to help them become well-rounded adults.

Positive or healthy risk-taking include playing team sports, volunteer activities, and making new friends. What makes these activities risky is that they all encompass the possibility of failure. Learning how to win and lose as well as how to take risks to help others are important social milestones that every teen must learn to conquer.

Negative Risk-taking:

Negative risk-taking includes activities such as smoking, drug and/or alcohol use, stealing, self-mutilation, unsafe sex, eating disorders, sexting (sending explicit semi-nude or nude photos via text message) and gang activity. While many teens embrace these activities because they include the highest form of thrill-seeking behavior, they also include the highest dose of danger and consequences. Teens who participate in negative risk-taking may be doing so for the sole purpose of experimentation, but they are also learning harmful, even deadly, attitudes and behaviors that can ultimately impact the rest of their lives.

The Good News About Risky Behavior:

For parents who are convinced their teen will fall prey to sex, drugs, and alcohol, you'll be happy to know that not all teens take dangerouis risks. Statistics show that there is good news in the bad.

  • While 40% of teens try drugs at least once, 60% will not.
  • Less than 25% of adolescents who try illegal substances use them; therefore the vast majority do not.
  • Half of all teens will experiment with alcohol which means that half will not.

Parenting the Risk Factor:

Since adolescents are hard-wired to take risks, parents should help them find healthy opportunities to do so. Positive risk-taking can not only serve as a means to boost self-confidence, but to also help prevent negative risk-taking behavior. For example, a teenage girl who plays sports is less likely to have sex early and less than half as likely to to get pregnant as girls who do not participate in sports. The positive effects of teens healthy risk-taking include higher self-esteem, confidence, feeling more satisfied with their weight and body image, and being more likely to attend college.

Many negative risk-taking behaviors can be avoided when parents pay attention to their own patterns of risk-taking. Teenagers watch and imitate their parents -- whether they acknowledge it or not -- and if parents partake in harmful risks then their teenager may too. This does not mean parents have to be perfect (none of us are), but certain types of parental risk-taking like taking drugs and engaging in sexual promiscuity, can and do influence the choices teens make for themselves.

Part of growing up is taking risks -- we've all taken them at one time or another. When your teen makes mistakes, do not remain silent on the issue. Share your experiences (when appropriate) with your teen. Letting them know about some of your own misgivings builds trust and cohesion in your relationship. If your teen finds out that you have made a few bad decisions, acknowledge it and let him know that he should make better choices for himself (just make sure you use common sense). It's often so hard for parents to admit our own faults, but when we do it with discretion and concern, teens tend to react positively and without judgment. Remember that growing up in today's high-tech society is difficult and the choices and risks teens take can be even more dangerous, stressful, and daunting than the ones we took a generation ago. Teens are meant to take risks, so let your teen take them -- just make sure she's taking the right ones.

Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., is a psychotherapist and writer. Her work has appeared in magazines including BabyTalk, Parents, and Parenting.

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