A Spin on Risk-Taking Behavior as an Expression of Positive Youth Development

More often then not we associate risk-taking behavior in teens as negative or harmful. However, we know that the teen brain is literally wired to take risks. Therein lies the dilemma. We are left with the belief, or fear, that our teens are going to take risks that could have serious consequences.

I would like to offer a different perspective. If we know that our teens are naturally going to engage in experiences that give them an adrenaline rush, why not provide them with opportunities to have that rush in an environment that promotes positive youth development? When you really think about it, don’t we all develop new skills and competencies when we put our selves out there and take a risk? Now, I am not suggesting that you encourage your teen to be dangerous or unsafe. Rather, I am suggesting that you literally set up opportunities for them to take positive risks.

Start by really thinking about what kind of activities best fit your teen. Below are some examples of positive risks that relate to different characteristics in teens:

  • Social risks: For some teens, it is risky to speak out in a group. If you have a quiet or reserved teen, it may be enough to encourage them to take a leadership role in something like student counsel or  a local youth group.
  • Physical risks: Some teens find satisfaction in taking risks on the field. This may be through school or community sponsored sport teams. Not only can sports be good for team building and leadership development, they expose young people to adult role models.
  • Other physical risks: Not all teens like team sports. Some may prefer to take up skateboarding, mountain biking, skiing, rock climbing, white water rafting, or surfing.  Of course, they need to have the right equipment and safety training. These activities develop initiative and personal discipline.
  • Political risks: Some teens are passionate about making a difference in their community. They may like writing their local congressman/woman, voicing their opinion on debate team, or participating in community activist or youth governance groups.
  • Creative Risks: Teens can express their creative juices in a variety of contexts. Some may take an interest in the drama team or the school choir.  Others may like playing guitar, reading poetry,  or reciting  spoken word at the local coffee shop. Either way, this kind of expression can take some serious guts!  Not only do these activities  give young people an opportunity to develop a specific skill, they teach them to be competent in public speaking.
  • Competitive Risks: Give your teen a chance to compete if they are inclined.  They can learn a lot, regardless of whether they  win  or lose.   If your teen does lose, treat it as opportunity to teach that we all lose at some point. Losing a competition does not make him/her a failure. It simply means there was a lack of performance.

We have to do everything we can to keep our teens physically and emotionally safe.  But, we also have to give our  teens a chance to take risks, learn about themselves, and develop skills and competencies that help them accomplish what they want in the world. Experts say that when teens have opportunities to take positive risks, they are more inclined to avoid the negative ones.   Think about our great leaders. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln did not have the impact they had on the world by sitting back and being careful all the time. I would like to leave you with some of my favorite quotes from Abraham Lincoln. As you read them, take a moment to consider how you can share these with your teen, or even be the example of how they are expressed in the world.

1. “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
2. “The best way to predict your future is to create it”
3. “Those who look for the bad in people will surely find it.”
4. “Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality.”
5. “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.”
6. “The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”
7. “Live a good life. In the end it is not the years in a life, but the life in the years.”
8. “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”
9. “Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing.”
10. “It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Happy Parenting!

Shelly

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Is My Teen’s Behavior Too Risky?

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:

  1. Drug/alcohol use/abuse,
  2. Unsafe sex, teen pregnancy, and teen parenting,
  3. School failure, underachievement, and drop-out, and
  4. 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.”

Happy Parenting!

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