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Teens and risk-taking

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

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.

A different view of risk taking

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 position of leadership 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.

Teens make decisions differently than adults

We can't discuss risk taking without mentioning decision making. Teens use a decision-making process, but one that is different from adults. Teen decision-making will include:

  • Weighing both the benefits and consequences of choices.

  • Noticing that risky behaviors don't necessarily lead to negative consequences. They see this in their own experiences and those of their peers.

  • Considering what their peers are saying or doing. Sometimes this might mean acting in a way they know isn’t right but gains them approval or acceptance from peers.

  • Overestimating their ability to identify and avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Even when they weigh the pros and cons, they might think, “I won’t get caught the first time” or “Nothing bad will happen to me. It only happens to other people.”

Every teen is an individual

As teens make choices, it's important to remember that age, maturity level, emotions, and past experiences all make a difference. Other things that impact teens’ decisions are:

  • Influence from parents, family, and peers.

  • Personality characteristics and interpersonal skills.

  • Quality and quantity of information about a particular choice.

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 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.

Teens need community support

The community plays a big part in giving teens opportunities for healthy exploration. "Community" includes schools, neighborhoods, youth organizations, and faith-based institutions. All these places allow exploration in supervised, supportive atmospheres. Steer your teen toward connecting with these parts of the community as they explore their interests.

Related resources

National Institute on Drug Abuse: Parents & Educators — Find the latest science-based information about the health effects and consequences of drug abuse and addiction and resources for talking with kids about the impact of drug use on health.

The Parent ToolkitPartnership for Drug-Free Kids — Tips for raising drug-free kids.

Talk. They Hear You: Underage Drinking PreventionSubstance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — This campaign helps parents and caregivers start talking to their children early about the dangers of alcohol.

Children Now: Talk with your kidsChildren Now — Tips for discussing difficult topics with your children.

ParentFurther — This online resource helps families strengthen relationships through shared activities. Family relationships provide the foundation from which young people can develop the motivation and skills to overcome challenges and thrive.

KidsHealth®: ParentsThe Nemours Foundation — Articles that answer your questions about growth, development, emotions, and behavior.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator in family relations

Revised by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Department of Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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