Risk prevention in adolescence.

Adolescent risk taking is the dangerous side of growing up.

Posted Dec 27, 2009

Once a month I have been meeting with a group of parents at a local middle school to discuss issues about adolescence. They choose the topic, I take a few minutes to frame it for discussion, and then everybody jumps in with their questions and contributions. It's a lot of fun and we all learn from each other.

The most recent session was about risk prevention in adolescence. The focal question was: "What are the three things parents of teens can do now to help avoid risky behavior from here forward?"

My response was - "Support sobriety, sobriety, and sobriety, understanding that these three sobrieties are not the same." There is sobriety around the management of impulse, sobriety around the management of emotion, and sobriety around the management of substance use.

In all three cases, the less sober the decision-making, the more risky it is likely to be. In the extreme, a young person who is in a highly impulsive, highly emotional, and highly substance affected state is more likely to take unwise risks than someone who is more measured, rational, and is operating substance free.

Of course, there is no risk-free living. Every decision we make is a gamble we take because so much that happens is out of our control and influenced by factors we cannot see. No matter how devoutly wished for, contractually promised, or reliably achieved in the past, few outcomes are guaranteed. So why should adolescent growth be any different?

But there is this difference: adolescents are drawn to risk taking more powerfully than are most adults. Risk taking is how adolescents grow, daring new experiences, experimenting with older behavior, curious about the larger world. The only way to grow up is to act grown up before you are grown up, that's how adolescence works.

In the same family, parents can have one young person who is a high-risk taker, who will try anything and knows no fear, and a low risk taker, who is scared of getting hurt or getting in trouble. Parenting the high-risk taker requires teaching taking calculated risks, thinking before acting. Parenting the low-risk taker requires teaching taking courageous risks, braving what is frightening.

Most adolescents fall somewhere between the two extremes, often varying at different points in their adolescent journey. Thus the cautious early adolescent who is still clinging to childhood security can act much bolder in mid adolescence, particularly in the company of more adventurous peers.

What frustrates parents with adolescent risk taking is the young person's commitment to the denial of danger. "I'll be okay, I know all about it, nothing bad is going to happen to me!" But denial isn't just counter productive, it is functional.

To some degree, to venture forward in life, awareness of risks must be set aside. Consider how adults do this all the time. When we get into our car to drive do we consider our likelihood of getting killed? No, we deny that there are around 40,000 traffic fatalities a year and that on this particular day we could end up being one of those numbers. The adolescent does the same, only his denial is about a host of new experiences he wants to feel unafraid to try.

So how should parents counter adolescent denial? The answer is with ‘responsible worry.' They must pause the action before considering permission to ask the "what if?" question about what might go wrong later to a young person who is only thinking about the urgency of what he or she wants to do right now.

So parents lets the young person know that the price of any new freedom is taking the time for due deliberation and full discussion to calculate risk and develop contingency plans should possible problems occur. "Driving that distance alone, what would you do if the car broke down?"

As for supporting the three kinds of sobriety, parents need to weigh their adolescent's susceptibility to each.

A young person who is prone to impulsiveness can be susceptible to momentary distraction, temptation, and pressure. With such a highly impulsive child, parents need to teach concentration, delay of gratification, delay in decision-making, anticipation of consequences, consistency of operation, reliance on structure, and the capacity to say ‘no' to peers.

A young person who is prone to strong emotion can be susceptible to momentary excitement, insult, and upset. With such a highly emotional child, parents need teach to listening to feelings, quieting feelings, talking out feelings, taking interpersonal slights less personally, not thinking with feelings, not acting feelings out.

A young person who is prone to substance use can be susceptible to self-medicating for discomfort or escape, or for enjoying the pleasure of social companionship. With an older adolescent who, despite their wishes to the contrary, is inclined to substance use, parents need to teach moderation, slow consumption, noncompetitive consumption, and unmixed use.

And since they cannot control choice, they need to inform it, specifically about the seven ‘deadly' risks of adolescence: social violence, accidental injury, daring behavior, school failure, illegal activities, sexual misadventures, and suicidal despondency. Alcohol and other drug use significantly increases the incidence of all of these seven dangers.

So in more ways than one, the safest journey through adolescence is found by following a sober path.

For more about adolescence, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Social cruelty - why early adolescents treat each other mean.