One of the recurring nightmares for parents of teenagers is that their teenager will participate in a genuinely risky activity, will take one risk too many, and that things will go wrong. With activities such as binge drinking, drug experimentation, dangerous driving, illegal activities, risky sexual practices, and unrestricted online encounters all on the list of possible areas for risk-taking, the seriousness of the consequences for some teenagers can easily be imagined.
Compared to those in both younger and older age-groups, adolescents and young adults take more risks. A variety of explanations has been suggested as to why this might be, including teenage hormone levels, the stage of their brain development, the need to explore for personality development, an attempt to break away from parental control, and that it reflects a common response to peer pressure and the desire to be included. None of these have received acceptance as a universal explanation for teenage risk-taking, but they have all received recognition as partial explanations for this widely observed phenomenon. This suggests the reasons for teenage risk-taking may be some form of complex combination of the above, with varying levels of significance attributed to each contributing cause according to the individual teenager and the communities from which they come.
Most commentators agree that risk-taking is a part of what might be termed “normal teenage behaviour”, part of the natural process of growing up. So, despite the understandable desire of some parents to prevent all forms of risk-taking, to do so should be regarded as ill-advised. If the freedom to explore and to try new things is part of the natural growing-up process, as it seems to be, then to obstruct it would be counter-productive to the goal of preparing teenagers for adulthood. On the other hand, if it is possible to moderate the more serious instances of risk-taking, so as to reduce the extreme dangers while still allowing room for experimentation and growth, then that would seem to be the preferred approach. This is the approach I shall pursue through the remainder of this article.
Advice for Parents
Manage the risk-taking environment for younger teenagers. Finding a “safe” environment within which younger teenagers can experience the thrill of risk-taking is one avenue of approach that parents can explore. Family days out, perhaps taking along a few friends, to managed adventure activities is one way of helping younger teenagers experience the thrill of adventure and risk-taking within an environment where the risk-taking is managed to ensure safety, as far as possible. Roller coasters at theme parks, rope courses through the trees, zip wires, rock climbing, hiking, river rafting… are a few examples of the types of activity that carry the possibility of thrill-seeking for families and friends within a managed environment. Parents should be aware, too, that adventure activities are not the answer for every teenager. Some will gain more by way of thrill from performing drama, music or dance in front of a large audience. Parents will need to choose the activities in consultation with their young teenagers, taking into account the level of adventure and type of risk-taking to which they are suited. By supporting and engaging in such activities, the bond between parents and their teenagers can be strengthened, and the hope is that the thrill experienced in such ways will lessen the likelihood that the teenagers will feel the need to go and seek their thrills in other, unsupervised, environments.
Get to know their friends. Parents should be aware that teenagers are more likely to take risks when with a group of their peers than at other times. Vulnerability to peer pressure seems to peak at around the age of fifteen, so once again, this is a crucial factor of which parents of younger teenagers need to be aware. Making your home available for your teenager’s friends to hang out gives a great opportunity for getting to know their friends. Seeing your own teenager interact with their peer group at close quarters can tell you all manner of things about them and about the nature of the group dynamics in operation within the peer group. Such insights can be invaluable in subsequent private conversations with your teenager. Contrary to popular myth, teenagers are interested in finding out what adults think, and once they trust you, they may well ask about all manner of things. Being in a position to advise your teenager and their friends and to influence them with regard to the type of risks they might consider taking or avoiding is both a privilege and a responsibility.
Engage in straight talk with your teenager about risk-taking, dangers and possible consequences. At times, teenagers choose to go against their parents’ best advice. Parents cannot always prevent this from happening, but they can ensure that any such decisions by their teenager are at least taken from the position of being informed about the risks, dangers and consequences of their choices and actions. Some parents find it difficult to talk with their teenagers about such matters as alcohol and drugs, or unprotected sexual activity, but a few minutes of discomfort whilst engaging in straight talk about such matters is far better than prolonged periods of regret for not having talked through such matters in the aftermath of poor choices having led to serious consequences. An ongoing dialogue throughout the teenage years is the best context for such conversations, within which your teenager knows they can raise whatever issues with you that they wish and that you will always do your best to talk the matter through and give your best advice, even when they don’t like what you are saying. As an article in the New York Times expressed it, “… adolescents who have open lines of communication with their folks and describe their parents as available and understanding are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior”.
Be prepared to support your teenager through the consequences of their choices about risk-taking. Sometimes your teenager will heed your advice; sometimes they will choose otherwise. Whatever their choices, whatever risks they take, and whatever the consequences if things go wrong, parents need to avoid absolving their teenagers of responsibility and to offer support as they work through the consequences of their choices. Teenagers will take risks, they will make mistakes, but the essential thing is that they are helped to learn from those mistakes as they continue their journey towards adulthood.
Teenage risk-taking can be a worrying subject for parents, so perspective is important. As a research study undertaken at the university of Pennsylvania into adolescent risk-taking concludes, “For the vast majority of adolescents … this period of development passes without substance dependence, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, homicide, depression, suicide, or death due to car crashes.”
Advice for Teachers and Schools
Promote safety. Schools and teachers carry a responsibility for the safety of their students during the time they are in school or engaged in school-related activities. The spirit in which that responsibility is carried out communicates a great deal to students about a school’s attitude towards them. Safety can descend to the level of a box-ticking exercise. Concern about student safety can become submerged in a mass of procedural minutiae, from which students and teachers long to break free. However, genuine concern for student safety, backed up by clear communication about why procedures are necessary and which include the responsibility of students to look out for each other, can help shape the value students place on their own safety and that of their peers. This can provide a valuable context and framework within which those same teenagers will operate when making their own decisions about the kind of risks they are prepared to countenance.
Promote activities that challenge teenagers. Many schools give students opportunities to participate in the Performing Arts, where they can experience the challenge and excitement of performance before an audience. Many schools also offer group activities around the themes of adventure and service, thereby providing in a controlled manner the kind of thrills teenagers often seek. Teachers who have seen the effects of teenagers being encouraged to perform publically, or being exposed to cultures other their own through participation in international development projects, or who have accompanied expeditions, will readily attest to their value as learning opportunities. Teenagers who have the opportunity to find challenge and thrill through extra-curricular activities and programmes facilitated by schools will often talk, even years later, of the enormous influence for good such opportunities provided them during their teenage years, and about the life-shaping effects they experienced through them.