Risk-Taking in Adolescence: What Does It Look Like and When You Should Seek Help?

There’s nothing more emblematic of the teenage years than risk-taking behavior. When we worry about teens, our minds automatically go to drunk driving, raucous parties with illicit drugs, and unprotected sex. However, risk-taking in adolescence is a natural part of growing up! When channeled into positive activities, it can be a great way for teens to explore limits and thrive. As a parent, understanding the difference between healthy and problematic risk-taking can help you keep your teen safe and know when to seek help.

Why Do Teens Take Risks?

Why do emotions rule behavior for many teens? Because teenagers are wired for risk-taking. In fact, it’s an essential part of their development.

During adolescence, teenagers’ brains change significantly. As they test boundaries and seek out new experiences, their brains send the feel-good chemical dopamine in response to surprises and unexpected rewards. Compared to children and adults, teenage brains release more dopamine, making teens more excited and responsive to risk-taking.

Every time your teen takes a risk, these high levels of dopamine help them learn and develop neural connections that will shape their ability to make decisions throughout their life. Risk-taking behavior is a natural part of growing up and discovering their own identities.

As parents, the challenge is found in helping your teen channel their risk-taking instincts into positive activities and knowing when their health and wellbeing are at risk. 

Common Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescence

The impulsive and often risky behavior of adolescence can be positive or negative. As a parent, it’s important to know when to encourage your teen and when to seek help.

Positive Risk-Taking

Risk-taking in a healthy, supervised, and supportive environment can help teens build confidence, learn to interact with peers, make decisions that fit their values, and discover who they are. Common examples of positive risk-taking include:

  • Trying a new sport or activity such as rock-climbing, mountain biking, martial arts, team sports, dance, gymnastics, or skateboarding
  • Learning a new skill such as a new skateboarding trick or playing a musical instrument
  • Taking on a leadership position such as student council
  • Entering a competition such as a spelling bee or chess tournament
  • Asking someone out on a date
  • Standing up against a bully or in defense of a friend
  • Engaging in volunteer work and activism
  • Public speaking

These risk-taking behaviors help teens learn about themselves and their abilities in a safe and healthy way. 

Negative Risk-Taking

Of course, we’re all familiar with the kinds of negative risk-taking that can cause harm to your teen’s health and wellbeing. This can include:

  • risky sexual activity such as unprotected sex
  • sexting and other risky online behavior
  • smoking tobacco
  • consuming alcohol and binge-drinking
  • taking illegal substances
  • dangerous driving such as speeding
  • trespassing
  • vandalism
  • fighting
  • truancy

If you notice your teen engaging in any of these negative risk-taking behaviors, it’s important to get them the help they need to stay safe.

How to Encourage Safe Risk-Taking

Parents are vital in guiding teens as they navigate the difficult waters of adolescent risk-taking. While it’s natural for your teen to become more independent and increasingly influenced by their peers, you as a parent still play an important role in guiding them and helping to shape their ability to take risks safely.

You can help encourage safe risk-taking behavior by:

  • Talking about your and your teen’s values
  • Encouraging their interests and helping them find opportunities to explore them
  • Modeling good decision-making
  • Providing them with quality information about any choices they face
  • Helping them talk through decisions and the potential short- and long-term consequences of their actions

Where to Get Help for Negative Risk-Taking

If your teen is taking risks that put their health or wellbeing in jeopardy, help is available. Discovery Day Treatment is a local, certified center to support Utah teens and their families as they navigate the challenges of adolescence. We’ll equip you and your teen with all the tools you need to grow and heal.

Reach out to us to find out more about how we can support your teen today.