Teens and risky behaviour
How to support your teen while helping them to stay safe.
Teenagers’ interest in new experiences is natural and a key part of what helps them grow. By pushing boundaries, teens develop independence and become increasingly self-reliant. But sometimes teenagers can take risks that put their safety and those around them in danger.
It can be a worrisome time for parents, but it’s important to remember that teens are built to seek independence and freedom. It's a sign of their healthy development.
We spoke with adolescent psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour about how parents can best navigate this time, providing teens with opportunities to grow and engage in new experiences, while helping them to stay safe.
“While the longing for excitement rises quickly in adolescents, their capacity for suppressing impulses develops more slowly. The spike we see in teenage risk-taking can be partially accounted for by the fact that, neurologically speaking, teenagers can be all gas and no brakes.”
Dr. Lisa Damour
Why are teens drawn to risky behaviours?
Dr. Damour: Teens are driven to seek out new and exciting experiences. Some of this is neurological – their brains are highly sensitized to the excitement that comes with experiences that feel rewarding and that can cause them to seek out thrills more than children and adults do.
Teens’ drive for greater independence can mean that they will push against boundaries that have been created by adults. While this may be frustrating for the adult, it's often a sign of healthy development in the teenager.
We also see higher levels of risk taking or risky behaviours among some teenagers who are struggling emotionally. This may be because they are trying to cope with feelings of distress. And teenagers who are under severe stress or feeling isolated are more likely to engage in risky behaviour.
As in all elements of parenting, teenagers pay very close attention to what the adults around them model. And we know that parents and caregivers who abuse alcohol or do not demonstrate healthy coping strategies are more likely to have teenagers who engage in risky behaviour and struggle to care for themselves, as well.
How do teens think about risks?
Dr. Damour: How teens reason about risk can be shaped by the contexts in which they find themselves. When teens are with adults or in situations that are not emotionally intense, they tend to reason very carefully about risk-taking behaviour. But when they are with their friends in socially or in emotionally charged situations, then they are less likely to use sound reasoning and more likely to make impulsive choices.
The type of risks that teens take are very much dictated by the norms where they live, how closely they are supervised and the kinds of risky activities that they can readily access.
Boys are generally more likely than girls to engage in risk-taking behaviour, but the kinds of risks that teens take depend a lot more on contextual factors that surround teens, than on individual factors, such as gender or age.
How can parents help keep teens safe?
Dr. Damour: The first thing parents and caregivers can do to help keen teens safe is to provide reasonable levels of supervision as we know that it can reduce the likelihood of dangerous risk-taking in teenagers.
The second thing parents should do is offer themselves as a partner in their teenager’s safety. Remember, prioritizing safety is something we should do with our teenagers – we want to talk with them about making safe choices when we’re not around and confirm that they feel comfortable seeking our help when needed.
Parents should set high expectations for adolescent behaviour and they should centre those expectations around safety. It tends to be most effective to talk with teenagers about keeping themselves safe as opposed to following rules, morals or laws that can often strike teenagers as arbitrary.
It's also important that adults make it clear that sometimes teenagers can find themselves in dangerous situations and may need help from adults to be safe. Though it may seem contradictory, parents can say:
“We're going to ask that you make good choices and take good care of yourself. But if you find yourself in a situation where you or your friends are unsafe, we want you to reach out to us for help. We promise we will never make you sorry that you sought our assistance.”
We know that teenagers don't always use their best judgment when they are with their friends. Accordingly, it can be helpful to plan in advance with them how they will handle themselves if risky opportunities arise. For example, a parent might say: “We're glad you're in agreement that it's not safe to drink alcohol when you're out with your friends. Tell us what your plan is if everyone else is drinking. What will you say or do that will help you to stick with the plan we're making now?”
Advance planning doesn't guarantee that a teenager will make the safe decision when they are with their friends, but teenagers are always better off if they have thought the situation through and are not trying to come up with a solution in the heat of the moment.
Don't hesitate to encourage your teenager to blame their good behaviour on you. No teenager wants to feel embarrassed in front of their friends and sometimes the way they can avoid that is by indicating that they would love to engage in the risky behaviour, but they will run into trouble with their parents if they do.
When should parents worry about risk-taking behaviour?
Dr. Damour: Risk taking is most concerning when teenagers engage in high-risk behaviours that can have the potential for lasting consequences, such as experimenting with drugs, alcohol, smoking, unprotected sex or reckless physical behaviour.
It's time to worry if your teenager is engaging in risks that could have lasting consequences, such as harm to themselves or others. It's also time to worry about risky behaviour if your teenager does not seem to be learning from their mistakes. For example, here in the United States, some teenagers will get very drunk at a party and, through sheer luck, come through the situation unharmed. It's time to be concerned when that same teenager continues to use alcohol in a way that is out of control.
What can I do if I’m worried my teen is endangering themself?
Dr. Damour: Parents and caregivers who are worried about their teenagers’ risky behaviour should express their concerns directly to the young person. Consider saying: “You need to be safe. If you are unable to keep yourself safe, it becomes my job to keep you safe, which may mean that you enjoy less freedom.”
The adult can then have a conversation with the young person about their plans for keeping themselves safe, what has stopped them from keeping themselves safe in the past and make an assessment about whether that child should be kept closer to home for a little while.
Any consequences for engaging in risky behaviour should be framed in the context of promoting safety. The goal, ultimately, is that the young person can operate independently and be counted on to look after their best interests.
When talking with teenagers about risk taking, we want to resist the impulse to threaten them with punishments if they get caught. While our intentions are good, we run the risk of teenagers focusing on what they can get away with, instead of on staying safe. As an alternative, adults can consider saying: “The issue isn’t whether or not you'll get caught – in all likelihood, you won't – the key issue is whether you'll get hurt. It is your job to take good care of yourself, and if you're not doing that job, I'm going to need to step in to help you do it.”
When should parents seek professional help?
It's time to seek help from a mental health professional when teenagers routinely engage in worrisome or dangerous behaviours – such as high-risk substance use, persistent recklessness, self-harm, or violence towards others – and the efforts you are making to help them take better care of themselves are not working.
Sometimes teenagers will be resistant to the suggestion that adults will be minding them more closely or limiting their freedom. At these times, it can be helpful to say to a teenager: “We want you to enjoy independence. And as soon as we know that you can do so while taking good care of yourself, we'll gladly support you in making that happen.”
Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist, author, New York Times contributor and mother of two.