Sensation-Seeking

Risk-Taking in Adolescence

Since one cannot grow up without taking risks, adolescence is a dangerous time.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

Why adolescent risk-taking?

For example, four middle schoolers are caught late at night skateboarding a deserted downtown parking garage. What's the appeal of such an adventure? Consider two: 

  • There is gambling with a chance to win what one wants, and the play of luck. "I wanted to see if I could get away with it"
  • There is sensation-seeking from the exhilaration of daring to try something new and different.  "I like the feeling of excitement."

Adolescents are drawn to normal risk-taking on both counts during their coming-of-age passage, continually testing themselves because there is a lot of new experience to try and growing up to do. 

Risk and chance

Of course for everyone, life is a risky business because chance or luck has a say in everything that happens.

  • Change keeps creating the unexpected.
  • Outcomes are multiply determined beyond our knowing.
  • There is infinitely more that people don’t control than they do.
  • Although dimly lit by hopes and expectations, the future is mostly dark.
  • And plan as people may, happenstance plays a major role in what unfolds.

Talking with young people about exciting risk-taking over the years, I’ve appreciated the power of luck when hearing accounts of dangerous exposures, near misses, and miraculous escapes, as well as counseling casualties of chance misadventures—when discussing recovery is the order of the day.

Risk-taking

Operationally, risk-taking is acting in ways that take chances with one’s well-being, pursuing some interest or allure that also offers harmful possibilities. 

Here, there can be a generational difference in perspective between parent and teenager. Preoccupied with the present, the adolescent is often eager to take risks for stimulation and freedom’s sake. Mindful of past investment and future possibilities, the adults are more concerned with protecting and preventing. At the extremes, the two generations can see risk-taking in opposing ways.

“How could you do something so dangerous?” the cautious parent asks. “Safety first.”

“And miss my chance?” replies the adventurous teenager. “Life is for trying!" 

Two kinds of risk-taking

In adolescence, there are acts of intentional and unintentional risk-taking.

Intentional risk-taking is deliberate, choosing a course of action that may turn out well or badly or a mix of both. A college freshman procrastinates about writing a paper until it is due the next morning. “I knew going without sleep would stress me out, but I pulled an all-nighter and made the deadline. Except afterward, I was too exhausted to attend my other classes, I fell further behind.” He hadn’t yet learned how playing the “put-it-off/pull-it-off” game often proves costly.

Unintentional risk-taking is a function not of intent, but from ignorance. Another college freshman, living away from home for the first time, didn’t know that she was putting herself in harm’s way by getting drunk at her first college party, trusting the older guy who invited her. “I didn’t know this could happen. He told me afterward how sex had been consensual, but I felt raped.” No one had warned her about the drinking/socializing dangers of college life.

Intentional risk-taking is motivated by purpose. When harm happens it is often seen as a “mistake.” Unintentional risk-taking is motivated by ignorance. When harm happens it is often seen as an “accident.”

Both mistakes and accidents are risks-come-true that have important safety lessons to teach. Putting these adversities to educational use is what parents must supportively do, talking these experiences out to capture the learning each has to offer.

Dire risks of adolescence

It is much scarier parenting an adolescent than parenting a child because now the young person is prone to risky older behaviors, often in the persuasive company of peers, away from parental control and out in the world, more vulnerable to significant harm should things go wrong.

I believe parents should speak to their teenager about eight dire risks that can threaten adolescent lives. They are these:

  1. Social violence
  2. Accidental injury
  3. School failure
  4. Illegal activities
  5. Sexual misadventures
  6. Suicidal despondency
  7. Dangerous daring
  8. Substance use

Parents can explain how, if the teenager moderates or eliminates the last, substance use, the risks of the other seven go down. Substance use increases sensational influence at the expense of sober judgment. This is why the safest path through the adolescent passage is substance-free.

Why adolescents take risks

Consider ten teenage motivations for risking more life experience and sensation-seeking to grow.

  • “If it’s unknown; it’s interesting” Outside the sheltered family circle, a larger world awaits to be explored. (Curiosity.)
  • “You can’t know what something’s like unless you try it.” Description is no substitute for experience. (Experimentation.)
  • “What you’re warned against sounds thrilling.” The more dangerous an activity, the more enticing it may become. (Excitement.)
  • “If it’s against the rules, it can feel right to do.” Acting outlaw can express youthful independence. (Rebellion.)
  • “I did it to act older.” Doing an “adult” activity shows the advanced age of one’s experience. (Growth.)
  • “I like taking chances.” Daring dangerous experience feels challenging and brave to do. (Courage.)
  • “I just went along with the crowd.” One attempts in the group what one would never do alone. (Conformity.)
  • “I can’t stand being told what I must not do!” Limits can sometimes feel intolerable. (Freedom.)
  • “I just did what I felt like at the time.” Emotional urgency can cause thoughtless decision-making. (Impulsivity.)
  • “I was really out of it.” Drugs can highjack better judgment and sober functioning. (Substance abuse.)

The youthful mindset that enables taking these risks is Denial.  “Bad stuff happens to other people, but not to me.” They believe exceptionality, smartness, or luck will protect them from harm.

Moderating risks

To help their teenager moderate risks and sensation-seeking, parents can encourage looking back at what has happened and looking ahead at what might happen, assuming two kinds of responsibility.

Looking back on any risk-taking, they can assume evaluative responsibility by identifying and owning what went well, what went badly, and what education they want to carry forward from that experience. “I hope I don’t get in another situation like that again, but I kept my head and didn’t panic. I could have spoken up earlier to help calm feelings down, but I didn't. And I’ve learned how to be more watchful when a group of guys gets overexcited watching a game.”

Looking forward to any risk-taking, they can assume predictive responsibility by anticipating possible challenges and complexities that might occur, asking “What if?” and “Just suppose?” They can then use these possibilities to prepare for what’s ahead. “To celebrate having graduated from high school, me and my three best girlfriends are going on a short road trip to mark the occasion. We are planning what we want to happen and what we don’t want to happen, and how we can get the good and avoid the bad.”

I believe the more an adolescent is taught to practice evaluative responsibility and predictive responsibility, the safer normal risk-taking and sensation-seeking can become.