The 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:
- Joining a club or group
- Branching out to a new social group
- Asking someone on a date
- Running for student government
- Outdoor adventures such as rock climbing, skiing, or mountain biking
- Playing a sport
- Pushing personal records in any physical activity
- 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.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
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