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Let's Talk Risk and What Teens Need to Be Healthy Adults

Aim for equal parts promotion and prevention.

SarahLynn., Flickr April 7, 2011.
Source: SarahLynn., Flickr April 7, 2011
Source: SarahLynn., Flickr April 7, 2011.

When parents visit my school they often hear me use the phrase profitable risk to describe a core institutional belief in constant learning. In the zero to three environment we embrace the challenges that emerge in children’s playful experiences recognizing that with social support and autonomy, children will master complex skills and begin to recognize the rewards of stretching towards goals that are hard to achieve. A morning stroll through our building may reveal children climbing high on play structures, balancing on concrete walls, descending multiple steps independently or resolving peer conflicts over trikes. As educators we know these experiences have big payoffs for a child’s social and emotional learning and essentially, children profit when risks leads to greater self-efficacy. Because the ages of zero to three are an exuberation period in the brain, we also know that these windows of opportunity for positive risk taking are important to a child’s overall psycho-social development.

Researchers find that the second “zero to three” in a young person’s life occurs during adolescence. During this second period of heightened brain plasticity, tweens and teens are faced with opportunity and risk. Psychologists acknowledge that a maturational imbalance in adolescence exists between the sensation seeking system and the regulatory system. Your dear son or daughter may be a risk-taking fanatic who is missing the brain power to control sensory impulses. I can confirm this from my own adolescent experience. I did some stupid stuff and I look back and ask “what was I thinking?” In truth, I wasn’t thinking because sensation seeking peaks at age nineteen and self-regulation comes way after. We know this now as adults looking back on our own experiences and we therefore, try to manage our kids through this natural phase of brain development. Haven’t you heard a fellow parent remark, “Well I know what I was doing at that age…”, so that parent tries to prevent their child from falling into the same traps. As parents we may not be able to outsmart this neurological acute angle that is an important part of growing up, but we can we teach our kids how to use a better design during this stage of brain remodeling. After all, research indicates that there is a positive association between positive risk taking and negative risk taking, so why not try to tip the scales in a more efficacious direction?

Natasha Duell and Laurence Steinberg (2018) characterize positive risk as those behaviors that: benefit an adolescent’s Well-Being, present potential costs that are low in severity, and are legal and socially acceptable. They further explain that a behavior can only be classified as a risk if the outcome of engaging in the experience is uncertain. For example, playing a sport versus trying a new sport where you may embarrass yourself.

When children reach puberty, parents begin to assess the potential risks of the adolescent years and take action to prevent negative risk-taking behavior. Knowing that our children are primed for risk-taking at this age what if parents learned to promote the good stuff along with preventing the potential dangers of risky behavior? To encourage positive risk taking, start by assessing your child on a risk scale with risk aversion and risk seeking on opposite ends. It turns out that risk taking is a pattern of behavior, not a personality type, so look for the following qualities of a positive risk taker to know where he or she may fall:

  • Internalizes family values
  • Has strong bonds to society
  • Possesses important socially-desirable long-term goals (academic or other)
  • Feels they have more to lose by taking negative risks
  • Is influenced by peers who take positive risks

Next, engage in conversations with your teen or tween about taking more positive risks this year and help them identify a plan! Remember that positive risks are risky because of their variability and uncertain outcome. Here are some examples to get you started:

Physical risks:

  • Try a new sport
  • Extend your performance goal (distance, speed, accuracy)

Social risks:

  • Initiate a new friendship with the risk of rejection
  • Spend time with a new group of people
  • Arrive at a party without knowing anyone
  • Attend a summer camp without friends
  • Attend a rally and hold up a sign
  • Stand up for something you believe in at school even if it is unpopular

Academic risks:

  • Enroll in a challenging course like an AP course even if it may produce a bad grade
  • Take a class in something you know nothing about

Performance risks:

Extracurricular risks:

  • Sign up for a new club you’re not sure if you’ll like
  • Learn a new instrument
  • Start a new business in the neighborhood or online- dog walking, babysitting, slime store

All phases of life present opportunities to take positive risks, but adolescence in particular opens a window of opportunity to use it or lose it. To all parents who struggle to prevent, remember equal promotion of these behaviors so that future generations learn to hunt the good stuff.


Duell, N. & Steinberg, L. (2018). Positive risk taking in adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 0, 1-5.

Steinberg, L. (2018). Notes from lecture on adolescent brain science: New research and practical implications. University of Pennsylvania, MAPP Summit, October 2018.


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