Parenting teenagers can seem like an impossible task—a period of life when parents are doomed to feel helpless and fearful.
Some parents are so accepting of this idea that they actively encourage early-age drinking and experimentation at home. Their thought processes may go something like this:
- “Teens will be teens, so why not let them have fun in a safe environment?”
- “I’d rather have my son or daughter partying at our house than some other place where I have no control.”
- “Teens need to learn how to handle alcohol, so they need practice.”
There are all kinds of adult justifications for accepting or encouraging risk-taking behavior in teens. Sometimes, parents think it is “cool” to drink alcohol or share marijuana with their kids. Is it a bonding or teaching experience? Not likely.
The myth that the teen years are filled with unhealthy risk-taking can set up parents and teens for failure instead of success.
A myth is an oversimplified statement that represents a widely held belief. Like most, this myth contains kernels of truth. But taken as a whole, the statement can be misleading and destructive.
Rather than a period of blind acceptance, parenting teenagers can be a time of relationship-building that helps adolescents mature to adulthood. Positive parental relationships help teens develop the self-confidence and sense of independence they need to lead fulfilling lives.
What should parents know about adolescent risk-taking that provides a bigger picture than is often understood?
Risk-taking and risky behavior was first defined in 1994 by German psychologist R.M. Trimpop as “any consciously, or non-consciously controlled behavior with a perceived uncertainty about its outcome, and/or about its possible benefits, or costs for the physical, economic or psycho-social well-being of oneself or others.”
Since then, many studies have focused on unhealthy adolescent risk-taking like speeding, drinking and driving, drug abuse, and unprotected sex. Research has also linked risky behavior with feelings of invulnerability.
Has Teen Risk-Taking Been Exaggerated?
The authors of the new book, Great Myths of Adolescence, suggest that a teen’s tendency toward risk-taking has been vastly overstated. Researchers provide evidence that adults are more likely than teens to use substances like marijuana and only about 5 percent of teens have ever used hard drugs.
This finding supports previous research that found no difference in teen’s perceptions of invulnerability from their middle-class parents or high-risk adolescents from treatment homes (Quadrel, Fischhoff and Davis, 1993). In fact, the decision-making abilities of teens and their parents were quite similar.
One factor that is different in the teen years, and likely the more powerful effect on unhealthy behavior, is peer pressure.
A study in the neural underpinnings of risk-taking found that sensation seeking increases between the ages of 10 and 15, then declines or stabilizes thereafter. In these middle school years, the brain exhibits an immature capacity for self-control, leaving young adolescents more vulnerable to the influence of peers (Steinberg, et al. 2008).
When teenagers believe that risk-taking is the norm, research suggests they feel more compelled to conform. Thus, the more the myth is perpetuated, the greater is the risk to teen safety.
What Does This Research Mean for Parenting Teenagers?
Parents should know that the desire to impress peers can often trump more mature judgment. In fact, studies show that teens become more reckless when in front of friends their own age than with adults or when they are alone. These findings, for example, helped form modern driving laws that limit the number of passengers allowed in a teen’s car and helped reduce the rate of teen car crashes.
Rather than buying into the myth that all teens will engage in harmful risk-taking behaviors, parents might instead focus on helping their child develop positive friendships. Teens who understand the inherent challenges of peer pressure and peer relationships are more likely to handle uncomfortable situations better.
Parents who make sure their teen knows they are available if their child finds themselves in a stressful situation with peers provide a valuable safety net. Researchers argue that life skills classes and comprehensive sex and drug education, not just abstinence, are very effective in reducing adolescent’s unhealthy choices and can also shed light on peer pressure. Parents also play a role in this kind of education.
Positive Parental Relationships Make a Difference
Research consistently finds that positive relationships with parents reduce unsafe adolescent risk-taking. Teens who describe parents as being available and understanding do not take as many unhealthy risks.
Parents who talk with teens, for example, about sex and contraception have conversations that pay off. Their kids take fewer sexual risks and do better under peer pressure. In general, parents who establish and maintain rules about driving, drinking, etc. raise kids who are less likely to use illegal drugs and alcohol.
While peers clearly influence unhealthy risk-taking, parents do as well. That influence is built upon a foundation of trust, respect, and open communication with teens. Parents can never guarantee the absolute safety of their teenagers, but they can do a lot to ditch the myth that unhealthy risk-taking is inevitable. In fact, parents can promote safety and facilitate positive risk-taking simultaneously.
In more recent years, researchers have begun to understand that not all adolescent risk-taking is harmful. In fact, taking risks is an integral part of learning.
The Upside of Teen Risk-Taking
Neuroscientists understand that teen brains naturally crave risk, challenge, and emotional stimulation. But this isn’t all bad news: Teens have the capacity for higher levels of self-awareness—a meta-cognitive ability that helps them discover their self-identities and find meaning in life during their adolescent and young adult years. Early in adolescence, teens instinctively push themselves out of their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical comfort zones, most likely because of changes in the limbic system of the brain.
Shortly thereafter, the brain readies itself for a more mature learning environment where teens get better at planning, organizing, and strategizing. At this critical time in their developmental, adolescents must find ways to confront life’s obstacles on their own terms.
Historically, parents (and researchers) have associated teen risk-taking with negative behaviors like drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, and other stimulation-seeking activities. The phrases teens might say when they take risks and confront challenges include:
- “What a powerful experience!”
- “I crossed barriers in my mind.”
- “I felt scared.”
- “I felt liberated.”
- “I was way out of my comfort zone.”
It’s easy to think these comments came from kids who were high on drugs or alcohol. But these were quotes from teenagers participating in my 2010 research study who were describing challenging turning points in their community service experiences: These teens were “high” on what they were doing and learning.
Activities that push teens out of their physical, emotional, social and intellectual comfort zones stimulate the brain, generate enthusiasm, and facilitate new learning. Teenagers can get these emotional highs from a variety of activities, including sports, internships, music, hobbies, and travel opportunities.
Meaningful community service is a particularly excellent activity for teens because it presents many challenges to overcome that are personally transformative. Service has the potential to stretch teen brains in ways that foster self-identities—the main job of adolescence.
How can parents facilitate positive risk-taking during the teen years?
Place relationship-building front and center. Show interest in who your teen is beyond a grade or test score. Encourage them to try new things, like developing hobbies, finding meaningful volunteer work in their community, or participating in a team sport that offers physical and emotional challenges.
Contrary to what you might expect, teens thrive with high expectations from parents—if those expectations are not unrealistic. They also learn best when they are gently pushed out of their comfort zones to learn new things.
With that gentle push, never lose sight of the fact that teens need to be supported, listened to, and encouraged to make their own decisions. They count on parents to be non-judgmental and provide perspective during challenging situations.
Successfully parenting teenagers doesn’t depend on using the “right strategies.” It depends mostly on having a healthy relationship that helps your teens believe in themselves.
Parents who expect the worst tend to shield their teens from risk and failure, seeding self-doubt. Because they want their kids to avoid failure, they don’t encourage them to take risks and learn from the many challenges and rewards that risk brings.
Healthy parenting means being attuned and responsive to the needs of each child. This involves being present and engaged with your teen. Letting go of fear and myths frees parents to get to know and enjoy the young adults emerging from inside their children.
Jewell, J, Axelrod, M, Prinstein, M, and Hupp, S. (2019). Great myths of adolescence, Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.
Price-Mitchell, M. (2010). Civic learning at the edge: Transformative stories of highly engaged youth. Doctoral dissertation. Fielding Graduate University. Santa Barbara, CA.
Trimpop, R. (1994). The psychology of risk taking behavior. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.
Steinberg L, Albert D, Cauffman E, Banich M, Graham S, Woolard J., Developmental Psychology. 2008; 44(6): 1764-1778.
Quadrel MJ, Fischhoff B, Davis W. The American Psychologist. 1993; 48(2): 102-116.