Risky Doesn’t Mean Reckless: The Upside of Teen Risk-Taking

girl skateboardingThe image of a reckless, impulsive teenager making terrible, dangerous decisions has become so embedded in our culture that we tend to take it as a given. Parents approach the teen years already expecting the worst and filling their toolboxes with lessons and lectures to teach kids to be less impulsive and more rational. But what if we are looking at this all wrong? What if risk-taking is a necessary, critical part of brain development? How might we parent our teens differently if we reframe the role of risk-taking in their journey toward adulthood?

Making that shift in thinking requires two things. First, we need a better understanding of the role of risk in adolescent brain development, and second, we must differentiate between positive and negative risks.

The Benefits of Risk-Taking

In his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Dr. Daniel Siegel talks about how important risk-taking is for the developing adolescent brain. He notes that “… the adolescent period of life is in reality the one with the most power for courage and creativity. Life is on fire when we hit our teens. And these changes are not something to avoid or just get through, but to encourage” (p. 6).

The very risk-taking that parents worry about and often want to prevent is what drives us as human beings to try new things, to explore, to eventually move away from home and venture out on our own. If we can embrace this as a healthy, necessary part of a teen’s development, we can stop fighting against it and instead focus on nurturing it in more positive, healthy ways. As Siegel puts it, “When we embrace these needed changes, when we offer teens the support and guidance they need instead of just throwing up our hands and thinking we’re dealing with an ‘immature brain that simply needs to grow up’ … we enable adolescents to develop vital new capacities that they can use to lead happier, healthier lives” (p. 79).

Positive risks are any activities that encourage teens to think creatively, seek out novel experiences, push their physical limits, or expand their social circles—essentially to try things that cause that “butterflies-in-the-tummy” feeling.

Promoting Positive Risk-Taking

So, what are healthy risks and how do parents foster them in teens?

Positive risks are any activities that encourage teens to think creatively, seek out novel experiences, push their physical limits, or expand their social circles—essentially to try things that cause that “butterflies-in-the-tummy” feeling. That feeling lets teens know that they are pushing their boundaries and expanding their minds.

Obviously, we don’t want teens to engage in reckless, dangerous behavior in order to satisfy their needs for novelty and risk-taking. Instead, we need to offer them a more positive approach to risk, such as:

Social risks:

  • Joining a club or group
  • Branching out to a new social group
  • Asking someone on a date
  • Running for student government

Physical risks:

  • Outdoor adventures such as rock climbing, skiing, or mountain biking
  • Playing a sport
  • Pushing personal records in any physical activity

Community risks:

  • Volunteering
  • Getting involved in a social/political cause
  • Leading—starting a business or charity

Anytime teens are trying something they’ve never done, where there is a healthy amount of fear and a chance of failure, they are taking a risk. And so much of what we hope and dream for them as adults—going to college, exploring the world, finding a career, navigating relationships—will require learning to become comfortable with risk.

How Can Parents Help?

Once parents understand how important risk-taking is to a teen’s development, the next step involves modeling and encouraging positive risk-taking. Parents can guide and support their teens as they:

  • Understand their own brain development and the need for novelty-seeking.
  • Differentiate between positive and reckless risk.
  • Identify new, creative ways to take a risk.
  • Problem solve around potential obstacles or fears.

When we are able to understand teens’ desire for thrill and novelty as a necessary part of their development and not just a stage to be endured, we can start to feel more empowered as parents to guide and support our kids through these exciting years.

Reference:

Siegel, Daniel J. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

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  • Kelly

    Kelly

    May 28th, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    Well I will say this for the risk takers. I think that this group as a whole is a lot more confident and comfortable in their own skin than those who are always tending to shy away and are adverse to changing things up a little bit. Now I don’t advocate for things that are foolish, but sometimes it is a little nice to step outside of the usual comfort zone and try something different for a change.

  • gats

    gats

    May 28th, 2015 at 2:17 PM

    I like the picture

  • Ernie

    Ernie

    May 28th, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    It can be a great idea to take some creative risks but I sort of draw the line with my kids when it comes to taking physical risks. I let them play sports but that’s about the limit

  • Martin

    Martin

    May 29th, 2015 at 11:15 AM

    Sometimes in life you have to be about taking those risks, taking those chances that, if successful, will help you go further in life. That’;s the reality of how things work. If you choose to only sit it out and wait around on the sidelines, or if you want your kids to do that then you also have to be content to watch others pass them by because that’s what is going to happen. Sometimes you have to consider that the bigger the risk is that you take, the bigger the reward ultimately could be.

  • TiA

    TiA

    May 30th, 2015 at 7:06 AM

    I have always been the person who is the first to try new things and probably take more risks than my parents would ever be comfortable with. I have done this academically, socially, and even to the physical level. There is something about just playing it safe that has never fit my personality and I think that if I was forced to do that all of the time then it would too much feel like I was having to stifle a part of myself to make someone else happy.

  • peggy

    peggy

    May 30th, 2015 at 3:28 PM

    At what point would you say that it is wrong to push your child into something that he does not feel that comfortable with> I want my son to try out for some sports teams at school. He is very athletic and I think that this would help him make some friends but he isn’t interested, says that he would rather hang out at home. Should I push him to do it or just accept that he is a homebody?

  • BruceC

    BruceC

    May 31st, 2015 at 11:24 AM

    You have to let them fall and get hurt a little so that they understand that they are tough enough to get through that little rough patch.

  • Norm

    Norm

    June 2nd, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    Teens I think are the quintessential risk taker. They like to try new things, experiment, find out what they like to do and what they like about doing it.

    On the one hand, this can be a great eye opening experience and a time to really come into themselves.’
    My fear is that so many of them are so impressionable that they will start to do things not because it is what they enjoy doing, but they seem to think that everyone else is doing it so they should too.

  • Finn

    Finn

    June 4th, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    I am so scared to ask this girl out that I really like, afraid that she will say no
    Although I know that by not asking I’m not getting anywhere with her, but that fear of being rejected is just holding me back.

  • ari

    ari

    June 6th, 2015 at 9:01 AM

    My kids will never really listen to me when I suggest that something could be a fun or creative new idea. I have to be kinda sneaky about it and make them think that they have come up with this brilliant idea on their own.

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