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Adolescence and Risk-Taking

Adolescents can't grow without taking risks and exposing themselves to harm

Of course parenting is risky at the outset as adults take a gamble on seeing what manner of little stranger will be born or adopted into their care. So their first job is to get acquainted with the baby as an individual, with what she or he is like in personality, interest, aptitude, temperament, and physical functioning.

At issue isn’t getting the child they want (ambition), but wanting the child they get (acceptance), and being grateful for this responsibility. The next generation of human life is now in their care. So right away they start working to know who they have, who starts working to get to know them in response, both devoting enormous attention to understand each other. Witness the wondering newborn stare and the adoring new parent gaze.

Infants, and particularly toddlers, are usually very high risk takers. Curiosity to learn about their surroundings makes this experimentation so. Ignorance makes them unmindful of danger until, despite parental precautions, some unhappy consequences occur. What is hot, for example, is often taught by getting burned. Climbing up can be followed by falling down.

Thank goodness for language acquisition, being able to learn from the spoken word. Now parental instruction can be given which is informative and protective, but only up to a point because brain growth is still immature and decision-making often impulsive.

Even so, by the end of childhood (around ages 8 or 9) many approaches to safe conduct can be taught. There are safe ways to moderate risks: “Go slow and be careful.” There is safety in compliance: “Parents know best.” And there are safe self-management habits that have been practiced: “Follow the rules.”

Then, around ages 9 to 13, the separation from childhood and early adolescence begins as parents notice in the young person more personal disorganization, a more negative attitude, more active and passive resistance, and more testing of limits to see what can be gotten away with. As interest in the wide world of experience outside the family circle opens up, following the adventurous road to independence is hard to resist, as it should be.

Now more risk taking is a necessary, exploring and experimenting part of how one grows. In the process, the old childhood thinking changes for the adolescent who often believes: “Go fast to keep up (with peers),” “Parents aren’t right about everything,” and “Rules are made to be questioned.”

As the adolescent begins letting go and detaching from childhood, parents, and family, the young person pushes against them and pulls away for more freedom and starts increasingly affiliating with a competing “family” of friends. From adolescent word and action, parents are put on notice that it’s time for them to do more letting go as well.

The age of Attachment Parenting and holding on must give way to the harder age of Detachment Parenting and letting go. Having established basic trust in a secure dependence on them in childhood, now the parent must foster the young person’s basic trust in self-reliance so a strong independence can grow.

It is at this point that parents feel conflicted. On the one hand they know it’s time to start allowing increased self-determination commensurate with more responsibility as the push for more independence begins; on the other hand they also know that with more exploration, experimentation, and worldly freedom comes more risk-taking and personal danger.

Thus begins one of the great challenges of Detachment Parenting adolescents: how to help the young person manage increased risk in life without doing her or himself (or others) significant harm.

What immediately troubles parents when they raise the issue of risks can be the adolescent’s response. “Oh, you worry too much. I know how to take care of myself. I know all about it. Nothing bad is going to happen to me!” Now the denial of risks appears to stare with blind eyes and listen with deaf ears to parental warnings, and speaks with perfect confidence.

However, the appearance is deceiving. What parents are hearing is not confidence, in most cases, but bravado. Scared of all the freedom in this brave new world, but too proud to admit it, the young person wouldn’t dare a lot of risk-taking that is required for growth without denying the likelihood of danger.

Risk taking = curiosity + challenge + excitement + denial. That’s one formula for adolescent growth. This is why parents should not to argue with denial, but accept it, and then proceed to talk about their cautions and concerns. Their job now is less to control the young person’s choices than to inform them. Since some young people seem to be more drawn to curiosity, challenge, and excitement than others, parents have a lot of talking to do with these adventurous teenagers.

So, perhaps a parent says something like this. “I know you don’t see any cause for concern or anxiety, but I do. And as your parent, part of my job is to help you consider possibilities to be on the lookout for, and have plans for coping just in case. I am not distrusting you; but I am distrusting all that can harmfully happen in an unpredictable world. Therefore, safety and normal precautions and thinking ahead are going to be part of our regular conversation from here on out as new and different opportunities for you arise.”

As with children, so with adolescents: parents still have a duty to warn. That’s not “helicopter parenting,” adult hovering that interferes with adolescent growth. This is responsible parenting, lending the adolescent a more seasoned pair of eyes to help the young person become more fully aware.

In counseling practice, I’ve seen a fair number of youthful casualties of risk-taking over the years, and some of the determining factors have been:

-Electing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time

-Rushing so fast there was no time to think

-Ignoring danger in order to act or appear brave

-Feeling despondent and not caring what happens

-Feeling immune to harm

-Feeling too scared to refuse taking a risk

-Feeling too angry to weigh the consequences

-Trusting others to determine what risks you take

-Feeling so bored anything feels worth trying for relief

-Seeking thrills for excitement’s sake

-Taking a dare for reputation’s sake

-Substance use altering one’s judgment

-Going along with the group to belong

Since each of these factors can contribute to harmful risk-taking, parents can discuss some of them with their teenager if they choose. A few merit additional consideration.

A lot of the dangerous risk taking in adolescence occurs in peer groups, the last factor on the list, when young people will collectively do what they would not do individually. This is when peer pressure, which has an upside in how young people can support and look after each other, can have a downside as well.

The impact of peer pressure on individual risk taking is the social extortion it can exert. For example, “You’ll be glad you did,” “You’ll be sorry you didn’t, “You’ll lose standing if you don’t,” “You’ll be left out if you refuse.”

In answer to such pressing arguments, parents might suggest that the young person say this to themselves: “If I believe I will have regrets or won’t like myself afterwards for joining in, maybe I’m better off paying the price for not going along.”

Finally, listed are four “red flags of risk taking” in the adolescent which can signal a need for more parental oversight. Here are 4:

1) Substance use

Substance use increases the likelihood of unwise risk taking. As sober caring about self and what is happening is lost, so is degree of carefulness that is taken until choices become more careless. In the in the extreme, the young person stops caring about consequences at all and acts carefree in the moment. For example, I believe most first experiences with sexual intercourse are substance-affected for one or both young parties – to a significant degree the oversight of normal caring has been altered or suspended. So, tell your adolescent that the best way to keep dating safe is to keep it sober.

2) Boredom

To escape the protracted pain of not knowing what to do with ones self, young people will sometimes risk anything to relieve the discontent of feeling disconnected, aimless, and at loose ends. For example, to escape their sense of emptiness and lack of purpose and inactivity and restlessness, one friend may join another and turn to vandalism to engage their interest on a hot summer night. So if you have an adolescent who is stuck in protracted boredom, it’s probably best to get them busy, even doing something they don’t necessarily like. In adolescence, boredom has a lot of harm to answer for.

3) Excitement

For some young people, excitement is their experience of choice. Risk-taking serves this end by creating a state of high intensity, of feeling totally alive – stimulated and challenged. For example, some young people, even starting in childhood, seem drawn to living on the edge for the excitement it provides and the competence from daring it can inspire. So if you have a high risk taking child, you will have a high risk-taking adolescent. Thus talking about taking reasonable precautions need to accompany discussions about taking appealing risks.

4) Ruling emotions

Adolescence is an emotionally intense and vulnerable time when it’s easy to let the big three negative emotions – despondency, anger, and fear – become so powerful that they are allowed to do the adolescent’s thinking for her or him. This is not a good practice. For example, under the ruling orders of these feelings, a young person can be lead to self-defeating and self-destructive acts. So if you have an adolescent who is making harmful decisions when embedded in any of these emotional states, consult a psychological helper to see if the teenager would benefit from some self-management counseling. Emotions are very valuable informants; but they can be very harmful advisors.

Because all adolescents lead double lives (the one parents are informed about and the other that they are not) dangerous risk taking is in the category where they are often kept out of the loop. Perhaps there is some mercy in this unawareness -- parents not having to worry about what they were never told.

Risk-taking: you can’t grow up without it. Thank goodness for the play Luck. Chance victimizes a lot of adolescents, but seems to spare many more. At least so I have come to believe from stories told about close calls, near misses, and miraculous escapes.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Changing Parental Expectations as Adolescence Begins

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