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Making decisions and taking risks

The word “risk” is defined as the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen as a result of a particular action. But when we think about teens, taking risks is more complex.

Parents often think of risky behaviors for teens as underage drinking, using drugs, or early sexual involvement. Parents also need to remember that risk taking can be both negative and positive. Teens can learn and grow from taking risks. Much will depend on what risks a teen might take, as well as when and where.

Risk taking isn’t all bad

As noted, risk taking can be either positive or negative, or even both. Risk taking might have negative consequences, but it also might have healthy outcomes. In some cases, risk taking is more like exploration that's a normal and healthy part of growing up.

For example, exploration for teens might include:

  • Participating in a new activity at school or in the community.
  • Trying a new sport.
  • Learning to play a musical instrument.
  • Taking a leadership position in a youth organization.
  • Getting to know someone new.

When this kind of risk taking occurs in a healthy, supervised, and supportive atmosphere, it can help teens build confidence. It can also help them learn to trust their own judgment and how to deal with disappointment and frustration. Exploration can also help teens learn how to:

  • Interact with peers.
  • Make decisions that fit their values and knowledge of what is right.
  • Learn more about themselves.

In other words, healthy exploration gives teens the chance to experience risk in a positive, supportive setting. This can lead to positive outcomes, without long term and potentially dangerous consequences.


What parents can do

Parents are key in supporting teens as they explore new ideas, try something they are interested in, or connect with a different group of friends. As a parent of a teen, you need to:

  • Be involved in your teen’s everyday life.
  • Talk about core family values — share your own values with your teen and ask teens about theirs.
  • Encourage your teen’s interests.
  • Help your teen find opportunities to explore individual interests.
  • Help your teen learn how to think through decisions.
  • Model good decision-making skills.
  • Help your teen think about how his or her decisions could affect not only themselves but others, in the short-term and long-term.

Related resources

KidsHealth.org — Where to go for information you can trust about teens that's free of "doctor speak." In English and Spanish.

ParentFurther: A search institute resource for families — An online resource to help families strengthen relationships through shared activities.

Reviewed by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and professor in family social science

Reviewed in 2021

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