Why Teenagers Take Risks

by Chris

Taking risks is part of life. It is most definitely part of growing up.

If we don’t take risks we never learn about our own capabilities or discover the joy of new experiences.  Risk can be good, but they can also be unhealthy. Part of an adult’s role in nurturing teenagers is to encourage risks in safe environments and equip them to avoid taking risks in situations where they could endanger themselves or others.

In this post I want to look at the 3 main reasons teens engage in unhealthy risk taking. But first I want to make clear that not all risk is bad.

Healthy and Unhealthy Risks

Healthy risk-taking is a valuable experience. It is one that has the possibility of failure, but is also rewarding and relatively safe. Healthy risks that are good to encourage in teens include sporting activities, artistic & creative abilities (theatre, dance, music), volunteer activities, traveling, making new friends, or entering competitions (academic or athletic).

Unhealthy risk-taking behaviour includes driving too fast, texting or talking on the phone while driving, unprotected sex, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, stealing, gang activity, or disordered eating.

It should be noted that although many adults interpret teenage risk taking as an act of rebellion, it rarely is. Rather risk taking in adolescence has much more to do with identity formation and self-definition than it does with making a statement about parents or society.

Brain Development

A lot of teen behaviour has been explained over recent years from what has been learned from adolescent brain research. Risk taking behaviour has been attributed to the asymmetrical development in different parts of the teenage brain.

The pre-frontal cortex is at the front of brain, just behind the forehead, and is the part of the brain that governs executive functions such as reasoning, critical thinking, and exercising self-control. Further towards the centre of the brain is the amygdala. This part of the brain controls our emotional more primal urges.

The pre-frontal cortex develops later than the amygdala. As teens seek out new sensations and new experiences, the under developed pre-frontal cortex means their brain has trouble controlling risk taking impulses and understanding the consequences of their actions. So teens will often respond on impulse rather than think practically and consider the ultimate consequences of their decision.

Peer Pressure

Elsewhere in this blog I have discussed the important role peers play in a teenager’s life. Peer pressure can have both positive and negative influence on teens.

One of the negative influences peer pressure has is encouraging unhealthy risk taking (it can also encourage positive risk taking).

The desire, or need, teens have to be accepted and be affirmed by their peers can be very strong. Sometimes referred to as the cool factor, or the intimidation factor, this need for acceptance can often result in teenagers choosing to take risks to either impress or be accepted by the group.

A study conducted at the National Institute of Health found that teens are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviours such as speeding, if they are accompanied by the same-gendered teens in the car.

There is no way to prevent teens being influenced by their peers. However we do know that  not all teens are influenced by peers to the same degree. Teens with stable healthy relationships between them and their parents are less susceptible to the negative influences of peer pressure.

Identity Development

Part of the process of adolescence is developing new ways of thinking.  As teenagers develop new cognitive skills they start to view the world differently, but not always accurately.

As teenagers leave behind childlike thinking they are able to think about themselves in new ways. They learn to see themselves as unique – in fact they can become quite obsessed with their own self and how unique they are.

One outcome of this self absorbed view of the world, or ego-centrism, is that teens believe that they are extra special, so special that although others may be vulnerable to harm they themselves are not.  This sense of invincibility has been linked to many risk taking behaviours including unprotected sexual activity, illegal drag racing, and drug use.

Reducing Unhealthy Risk Taking

Adults can have influence upon the level of unhealthy risk taking in teenagers.

Healthy risk-taking can help prevent unhealthy risk-taking. Adults  can help teens find  opportunities to take healthy risks by encouraging them in constructive pursuits like sports or arts etc.

Model good risk taking patterns. If adults model unhealthy risk taking in their daily lives it is likely to influence how teens take risks. Teenagers are watching and imitating.

Regulate the context in which teenagers live so they avoid getting in situations where they are more prone to taking unhealthy risks.

Discuss risk taking with teenagers and help them  learn how to evaluate risks and anticipate the consequences of their choices. Young teenagers in particular may not always be aware of the risks associated with certain behaviours.

Image by Sids1

  • Christine

    What if the teenager lives in a healthy environment with a parent who talks and listens, and warns of the potential damage that might occur based on their behaviour, and their response is “I can do what I like, when I like” Even though she is told that actually some of what she is doing is illegal, that is still the response.

    • Freedom 4 Ur SouL

      Hi, I know this was posted a year ago, but for future Parents going through similar situation,
      if that were me I would agree to the comment “I can do what I like, when I like” I’d say

      ” yes you can do what you like, when you like. And it’s your right and your choice to do so….but please put some thought into the consequences to your actions”

      The delivery to this needs to be in a non threatening tone. It needs to come from the heart.
      Sometimes explaining what it would, NOT COULD, do to you emotionally, helps with getting through the teens reality of it all. Letting things cool out after making one of these statements also gives them some alone time to soak it all in.
      Teens don’t like to be told what they can and can not do. Especially in a heated situation.
      When it’s HEATED we all tend to say things we don’t mean or the wrong way. And on the other side of the spectrum, we tend to hear things that weren’t said or interpret them the wrong way. Communicating and respecting each other’s needs no matter age, race, gender etc. is KEY to All relationships.
      I really do hope this helps
      LOVE to ALL
      Rey Rey Romero
      AKA
      Freedom 4 Ur SouL

  • Freedom4UrSouL

    Hello again, I would like to share a story.
    My Daughter, who was 8yrs old at the time, came up to me to tell me that her brother (my Son 10yrs old) said, that he didn’t have to do wash the dishes. So I called him over and asked him if he said this and he replied “Yes” So I asked him to explain. He said he told his sister he didn’t ” haaaaaave to” wash the dishes but that he “chooooses” to wash them. I replied “your right!! and you chose to wash them because you know the consequences,right?” he said “EXACTLY”
    I try to never say “NO” to my kids. I think that will spark more curiosity to engage in that thought. What I do is, if it’s dangerous (fire, crossing the street, guns etc.) I will explain what could happen and paint a picture, a story in their head of their outcome.
    If it’s a danger like smoking, alcohol or being curious to anything adult oriented, I still explain the dangers of it but, I explain that when they get older and leave the house they can chose to do whatever they’d like, but to remember the consequences to those actions.

    Sincerely,
    Rey Rey Romero
    AKA
    Freedom 4 Ur SouL

  • yeah man yeah

    yeah man yeah