boy jumping into rock pool

Do you ever wonder why young people take unnecessary and sometimes dangerous risks? Taking risks and pushing boundaries is common amongst teenagers and is a big part of growing up. It can be concerning for parents, especially when their activities or behaviours could or do result in harm to themselves or others. There are many reasons why teenagers act this way, but you can assist by helping your child develop positive ways and behaviours to take risks.

This can help if you:

  • want to know why your child takes risks
  • think your child takes problematic or negative risks
  • want to learn about positive risk taking.

Why do teenagers take risks?

When we think about risk taking, we often immediately think of negative risks. The seemingly irrational or dangerous things that teenagers do, usually when they’re with friends, cause parents to worry.

During adolescence there are changes in the brain that make teenagers more focused on the reward they feel when they are admired by their friends, and the positive reinforcement they get by being included in a group of peers. This is why friends and peers become incredibly important during the teenage years, and why they feel so distressed if they don’t have friends or are socially rejected.

This increased focus on what their friends think of them occurs during a time when the brain isn’t ready to assist in mature self-regulation. These factors provide perfect opportunities for risky behaviour to occur.

Your child’s friends and peers have a significant influence on your child’s behaviour, their need to fit in and to be accepted, which is why if their friends are inclined towards risk taking, it’s likely your child will be too.

In a computerised driving test that examined how teenagers responded to risky driving, researchers found that early adolescents were more likely to engage in risky driving when friends were present. Late adolescents were also somewhat more risky in their driving when they were with friends. It often isn’t until adulthood that we aren’t so heavily influenced by our friends and peers and are better able to make our decisions for ourselves.

However not all risk taking is negative. Positive risk taking occurs too and the rewards of positive risk taking are just as dopamine-inducing and a great way for teenagers to experience the natural and safer high.

Risky behaviour: positive or negative?

Generally speaking, teenagers like to push boundaries and take risks because the ‘reward’ (things like feeling good or being accepted) often outweighs the consequences. However risk-taking can be both positive and negative.

Negative risks are things that most parents worry about:

  • experimenting with alcohol and other drugs
  • having unprotected sex
  • wagging school
  • getting a lift with someone who has been drinking.

Negative risks can have harmful consequences on a teenager’s health, safety and wellbeing. Why do they do it? Because the impulse and consequences feels good.

Positive risk-taking is about learning new things and exploring unfamiliar territory. It’s where you go outside your comfort zone, like auditioning for a play at school or asking someone out. The risk is positive because, while it still evokes a feeling of uncertainty or fear, you develop a new skill or there’s a possibility of a positive outcome. The positive risk has the same affect on the brain as a negative one, it feels good and they can get that ‘high’ by stepping out of their comfort zone.

Encouraging your child to take positive risks is a good skill for life and they’ll learn things about themselves and their abilities in a safe and rewarding way.

Get some ideas on how to support your child with positive risk taking.