Risk-taking in teenagers

three young people drinking alcohol

This can help if you:

  • are wondering 'why do teenagers take risks?'

  • think your child takes problematic or negative risks

  • want to learn about positive risk-taking

  • are wondering what the balance between negative and positive risk-taking is.

What does negative risk-taking in teenagers look like?

Negative risks can have harmful consequences on a teenager’s health, safety and wellbeing. So, why do they do it? In short, because the impulse and consequences feels good.

Common examples of negative risks include:

Why do teenagers take risks?

It is normal for teenagers to push boundaries and increasingly start taking risks. Teenage risk-taking is an important part of their journey in finding their identities and becoming independent young adults.

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. This is why friends and peers become incredibly important during the teenage years, and why they feel real distress if they don’t have friends or are socially rejected.

The science behind teen risk-taking behaviour

The areas that handle impulse control and planning also don’t completely mature until about age 25. This means teenagers are more likely than adults to make quick and risky decisions.

On top of this, your child’s friends will now have a larger influence on their behaviour. This is why if their friends are inclined towards teen risk-taking behaviours, it’s likely your child will be too.

For example, in a computerised driving test, researchers found that early adolescents were more likely to engage in risky driving when friends were present. Late adolescents were also somewhat more likely to showcase risky behaviour in their driving when they were with friends.

However, not all risk-taking has negative consequences – encouraging your teenager to practice positive risk-taking can be a safe outlet to help them develop their decision making skills.

What is positive risk-taking?

Positive risk-taking is about learning new things and exploring unfamiliar territory. 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.

Common examples of positive risks

If they are looking for thrills, support them to take on hobbies or engage in activities, like:

  • Sports: rock-climbing, mountain biking, martial arts, competitive team sport like basketball or football, or performance sports like dance or gymnastics.

  • Arts: joining the school play or band.

  • Volunteering: getting involved in a social or political cause, running for a school committee

  • Education: getting involved in a math or spelling competition.

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.

Peer pressure and risk-taking

Being around friends and peers can lead your child to take negative risks, which can have harmful consequences on a teenager’s health, safety and wellbeing. You can figure out who your teenager’s peers are by paying attention to who they socialise with and speak about. Supporting your child to recognise teen peer pressure, and when it helps and hinders them is an important role for parents to play.

How to help your teen when peers are risk-taking

One way you can support them in the moment is to help them come up with some creative ways to say no to peer pressure. Check out this video with Jay Lag’aia to get some tips.

Whether your child is actively taking risks or you are worried about it happening, it’s important to have a conversation with them about it. For some more ways you can help and support your child around risk-taking, check out our things to try to support positive risk-taking.

What can I do now about my teenager's risk-taking behaviours?