Risky Business

What do we value and assume about 'risk-taking' in our young people?

It is normal for young people to want new experiences, to push boundaries and take risks. In fact, it is intrinsic to their social, emotional, and cognitive development and an important stage in their journey to finding their identities and becoming independent young adults.

Parents commonly think of 'risk-taking' behaviours in adolescence as underage drinking, vaping and drug taking, dangerous driving (texting), risky sexual behaviour and the like. In fact, the word 'risk' is often defined as the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen because of a particular action.

However, we also need to remember that risk-taking can be both negative and positive and that young people can learn and grow from taking risks, making it more complex to understand.

Why do teenagers take risks?

During adolescence there are changes in the brain that make teenagers more focused on the reward they feel when they are admired by their friends, and the positive reinforcement they get by being included. Therefore, friends and peers become incredibly important during the teenage years, and why they feel real distress if they don’t have friends or are socially rejected.

The areas of the brain that handle impulse control and planning also don’t completely mature until about age 25 (later in males). This contributes to teenagers being more likely than adults to make quick and risky decisions.

However, not all risk-taking has negative consequences. Encouraging your teenager to practice positive risk-taking can be a safe outlet to help them develop their decision-making skills.

Positive risk-taking

Positive risk-taking is about learning new things and exploring unfamiliar territory. The risk is positive because, while it still evokes a feeling of uncertainty or fear, you develop a new skill or there’s a possibility of a positive outcome.

If young people are looking for new challenges or thrills, support them to take on hobbies or engage in activities, like:

  • Sports: rock climbing, mountain biking, martial arts, competitive team sport like basketball or football, or performance sports like dance or gymnastics.
  • Arts: joining the school play or band
  • Volunteering: getting involved in a social or political cause, participating in a school committee
  • Education: getting involved in a maths or spelling competition.

When this kind of risk-taking occurs in a healthy, supervised, and supportive atmosphere, it can help young people build confidence. It can also help them learn to trust their own judgment and how to deal with disappointment and frustration. Exploration can also help teens learn how to:

  • Interact respectfully with peers
  • Make decisions that fit their values and knowledge of what is right
  • Learn more about themselves
  • Develop life skills in a safe and rewarding way
  • Seek help and/or further support when experiencing personal difficulties

Peer pressure and risk-taking

Being around friends and peers can sometimes lead your child to take negative risks, which can have harmful consequences on a teenager’s health, safety, and wellbeing. Supporting your child to recognise peer pressure - when it helps and when it hinders them - is an important role for parents to play. One way you can support them is to help them come up with some creative ways to be assertive, and to say no to peer pressure. Whether your child is actively making risky choices, or you are worried about it happening, it’s important to have a conversation with them about it.

Every teen is an individual

As our young people grow, develop, find their own voice, and make their own choices, it's important to remember that many factors contribute to how they make decisions including; age, maturity, hormones, personality characteristics, interpersonal skills, family, position in the family, friends, connectedness to community, the quality and frequency of information about a particular choice, and past experiences all make a difference.

What parents can do

Parents are key in supporting teens as they explore new ideas, try something they are interested in, or connect with a different group of friends. Learn to grow with them whilst being cognisant that this is their journey, their story.

The impact of COVID on teen risk-taking

One of the impacts of living and working in lockdown in 2020 and 2021 whereby we spent an unprecedented amount of time with our children, was that they were restricted in their capacity to have formative experiences that would have previously been considered as part of 'normal' adolescent development.

Now it is time to step back, to trust, and allow them the opportunity to grow and learn by taking risks.

As parents, we can:

  • Continue to show up and be interested in their everyday life; make time to listen and talk, do something together, and keep investing in your relationship with them as they move towards young adulthood
  • Maintain respectful communication regarding negotiating privileges, managing expectations, fostering responsibility, and considering meaningful consequences
  • Talk about core family values. Share your own values and ask them about theirs
  • Encourage them to find opportunities to explore individual interests
  • Model good decision-making skills
  • Promote thinking about how their decisions could affect not only themselves but others, in the short-term and long-term
  • Encourage them to seek support from professionals and/or other trusted adults if they want to speak with someone other than their parents

Young people can teach us a lot about ourselves, and we need to learn to grow with them. We cannot protect them from failing, feeling disappointed, hurt, or sad. They must find this out on their own. Life is about taking risks, both negative and positive ones, and that’s how we all learn to make the right decisions for ourselves. Preventing our children from taking risks won’t empower them to become the adult we want them to be. Celebrate their successes and learn how to support them to respond well to failure. And finally, let them know they can always rely on your support. You won’t always like or agree with the choices they make but being there for them means letting them know that you may not always agree with them, but that you will always support them.

In kindness,

Director of Counselling