Picture this scene:
Mom and dad are out of town for a week. In their absence, a good friend is watching their house and their two teenagers kids. Things go smoothly Friday and Saturday night. However, the tides turn! While everyone nestles into bed Sunday evening, 16 year old James is on the phone with his girlfriend. He and Amanda have been dating for almost a month and have not seen each other for days. Yearning to see one another, they decide to meet up in the night. The plan: James will drive over to Amanda’s house around 2:00 a.m. Amanda will sneak out and meet him on the corner of her street. The two of them will drive around or go to a park, and be home before sunrise. The clock strikes 1:45 and James hits the road. At exactly 2:00, Amanda meets him down the street from her house. The two drive around for a while and find themselves talking under a tree in the park. Everything is going as planned until…..they fall asleep! Monday morning rolls around and the house sitter wakes up to find his car is missing! Immediately, he checks both bedrooms. The youngest boy is sound asleep, but the oldest is gone. He tries to call James, but there is no answer. Increasingly upset, he notifies his employer that he will not be at work and he waits to hear from the boy. At around 9:30, James rolls through the front door in a major panic. Carrying a box of doughnuts he says, “I am soooo sorry! I wanted to surprise you with doughnuts for breakfast, but I fell asleep while I was waiting for the store to open.“
I will leave the rest to your imagination. The point is that teens take risks. They are completely immersed in gaining a deeper understanding of themselves and how the world works. They do things they are not supposed to do. They even think through them “logically”. However, they rely on their logic, not the logic of an adult brain. The teenage brain is actually programmed to take risks. Specifically, their brain has elevated levels of dopamine, a natural transmitter that creates the sensation of pleasure when stimulated. Taking risks stimulates this pleasure center, giving them a thrilling sensation when the dopamine is released.
Most common risk-taking behaviors can be clumped into 4 categories:
- Drug/alcohol use/abuse,
- Unsafe sex, teen pregnancy, and teen parenting,
- School failure, underachievement, and drop-out, and
- Delinquency, crime, and violence.
These categories are probably not surprising to you. In fact, it is likely that they are the very things you worry about. At the end of the day, parents are left knowing that they will not always be there in the very moment their teen is forced to make a decision. Now, knowing what the risks are, and that it is normal for teens to take more risks than then their younger and older counterparts does not make it easier for parents. Parents are still left with the looming question, “Is my teen’s behavior too risky?”
How do you know when your teen’s behavior is too risky? Pay attention to:
Age: Engaging in risky behaviors at an early age can have both immediate and long-term consequences. Educate your teen on the risks they may face. Help them understand how risks can effect their brain, relationships, and future opportunities. Know who is in your teen’s peer group. Spending time with older kids can introduce behaviors earlier than the “norm”.
Amount: Take it seriously, but don’t overreact. Dabbling is not the same as chronic risk-taking. Experts show that the consequence go up significantly when teens take risks in multiple areas, in part because risk begets more risk. Pay attention to what is going on in their world. Create space for constant communication, and insist that your teen lets you know where he/she is, and with whom. Monitor and supervise whenever possible.
School: Teens who are engaged in school are less likely to get into trouble. It is also important for parents to have high expectations for good conduct and performance. Having high expectations is not the same as pressuring your teen. Establish clear rules and give consequences when they are not met. Avoid pressuring or attaching meaning to the teen’s character or abilities when they make mistakes.
Other activities: Weigh risky behaviors against other activities. Teens who are doing well in school, have friends that value school, and participate in some form of extracurricular activity are likely to be right on track. These factors can buffer teens from risks. If you are faced with a problem, look at how well your teen is doing in other areas of his/her life.
Environment: Environment can have a big impact on risk-taking behavior because it impacts what is available in a particular neighborhood or community. For example, it is estimated that those living in low-income communities are up to 5 times more likely to take risks. Parents can reduce the impact of environment by creating structure, using discipline, and monitoring their teen, while also being loving, affectionate, and available.
What Else Can You Do?
Focus on Preparing Youth: Don’t just focus on protecting your teen from risks. While that is important, it is equally important to help your teen be fully prepared for the world. This means putting energy into providing opportunities, cultivating their potential, and surrounding them with supportive adults and healthy environments.
Create opportunities for positive risk-taking: Taking a risk means doing something outside of your comfort zone, the place where experts say growth occurs. For some teens, this can take the form of joining a new club, participating in a different sport, or taking on a leadership position. Having opportunities to take “appropriate” risks can reduce a teen’s desire to take “inappropriate” risks. Have them try wake boarding or mountain biking to get that dopamine release!
Get Help: Reach out to a school counselor, local therapist, or another trusted professional if you are concerned about your teen’s behavior. I once heard a teen say, “A therapist is just a friend when you feel like you don’t have one. You don’t need them as much once you know yourself better and can reach out when you need help.” It can be a blessing to let other trusted adults contribute to your teen.
These years are sure to be a wild ride, with the occasional bump in the road. Some things can be expected, but others will be your child’s unique expression of being a teenager. Consider that risk-taking is a necessary part of your teen’s grown and development. After all, what would life be like if you never took risks? The goal is to steer them in such a way that they use risk-taking to expand their potential, and avoid actions that can have serious, or even lifelong consequences. As a good friend of mine once said, “the mountain may be steep, but at the end of it all you will be better for the climb.”
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