Teens and Risk-Taking
Colleen Gengler, Extension Educator — Family Relations
2011. Revised February 2017 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Family Social Science.
The word “risk” is defined as the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen as a result of a particular action. However, when we think about teens, taking risks is more complex. Parents often think of risky behaviors as underage drinking, using drugs, or early sexual involvement. Parents also need to remember that risk-taking can be both negative and positive. Teens can learn and grow from taking risks. Much will depend on the when, where, and what of the risks in which teens might participate.
A Different View of Risk-Taking
Risk-taking can be thought of not only as experiences with potentially negative consequences, but also those leading to healthy outcomes. To help accomplish that dual perspective, risk-taking can be viewed as “exploration” that is a normal and healthy part of growing up.
Teens can experience risk by exploring a new activity at school, trying a new sport, learning to play a musical instrument, taking a position of leadership in a youth organization, or getting to know someone new. When this kind of exploration occurs in a healthy, supervised, and supportive atmosphere, it can help teens build confidence, learn to trust their own judgment, and learn to deal with disappointment and frustration. Exploration can also help teens learn to interact with peers, make decisions that fit their values and knowledge of what is right, and figure out more about themselves.In other words, healthy exploration gives teens the chance to experience “risk” in a positive, supportive setting that can lead to positive outcomes — without the long term and potentially dangerous consequences associated with risky-behaviors such as riding with someone who has been drinking or trying drugs.
Teens Make Decisions Differently than Adults
Risk-taking cannot be talked about without discussing decision making. As teens consider any decision, whether it is about a potentially risky behavior or something we might consider healthy exploration, they will use a decision-making process, but one that is different from adults. Teen decision-making will include:
- Weighing both the benefits and consequences of choices.
- Noticing from their own experiences and the experiences of their peers that participation in many risky behaviors does not often lead to negative consequences.
- Considering what their peers are saying or doing. Sometimes this might mean acting in a way they know isn’t right but gains them approval or acceptance from peers.
- Overestimating their ability to identify and avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Even when they weigh the pros and cons, they might think, “I won’t get caught the first time” or “Nothing bad will happen to me. It only happens to other people.”
Every Teen Is an Individual
As teens make choices, it is important to remember that age, maturity level, emotions, and past experiences all make a difference. Other things that impact teens’ decisions are:
- Influence from parents, family, and peers.
- Personality characteristics and interpersonal skills.
- Quality and quantity of information about a particular choice.
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. Parents need to:
- Be involved in their teen’s everyday life.
- Talk about core family values — share your own values with your teen and ask teens about theirs.
- Encourage their teen’s interests.
- Help teens find opportunities to explore their interests.
- Assist teens with learning how to think through decisions.
- Model decision making skills.
- Help teens think about how their decision could affect not only themselves but others, in the short-term and long-term.
Teens Need Community SupportMany parts of the community — including neighborhoods, schools, youth organizations, and faith-based institutions — play a significant role in providing opportunities for healthy exploration in a supervised and supportive atmosphere. It is vital to make sure all teens have opportunities that meet their needs and interests.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse: Parents & Educators — Find the latest science-based information about the health effects and consequences of drug abuse and addiction and resources for talking with kids about the impact of drug use on health.
The Parent Toolkit — Partnership for Drug-Free Kids — Tips for raising drug-free kids.
Talk. They Hear You: Underage Drinking Prevention — Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — This campaign helps parents and caregivers start talking to their children early about the dangers of alcohol.
Talk with Your Kids — Children Now — Tips for discussing difficult topics with your children.
ParentFurther — This online resource helps families strengthen relationships through shared activities. Family relationships provide the foundation from which young people can develop the motivation and skills to overcome challenges and thrive.
KidsHealth®: Parents — The Nemours Foundation — Articles that answer your questions about growth, development, emotions, and behavior.