The Role of Risk in a Teen’s Life

It’s been a fact for years—during the period of adolescence, young people are prone to take more risks than at any other time of their life. The pre-frontal cortex is developing during this period. The portions of the brain attuned to reward for risks are very high and the portions of the brain that signal consequences for risk are very low. This can lead “smart kids to do some dumb things” at or after school.

The problem for adults (staff, parents, faculty) is that we want them safe and hence, protect them from some natural risk-taking they need to experience in order to grow up. Worse yet, we often protect them from the consequences of bad choices by making excuses for them or covering for them or even paying the price of that poor choice for them. We mean well, but we are stunting their growth.

According to a study by University College London, risk-taking behavior peeks during adolescence. Teens are apt to take more risks than any other age group. Their brain programs them to do so. It’s part of growing up. They must test boundaries, values and find their identity during these years. This is when they must learn, via experience, the consequences of certain behaviors. The testing must have some boundaries or they’ll never learn (even as adults) what is appropriate. This may explain why so many young adults, between the ages of 22 and 35 still live at home or haven’t started their careers, or had a serious relationship. Normal risk taking at fourteen or fifteen would have prepared them for such decisions and the risks of moving away from home, launching a career or getting married.

Six Steps Toward Healthy Risk Taking

Obviously, negative risk taking should be discouraged, such as smoking, alcohol, illegal drugs, etc. But—healthy teens and twenty-somethings are going to want to spread their wings and try new things. And we, the adults, must let them. Here are some simple ideas you can employ as you navigate these waters:

  1. Let them take calculated risks. Talk it over with them, but let them do it.
  2. Discuss how teens are hard-wired to risk, but that they must make choices.
  3. Choose positive risk taking options and launch them into those. (i.e. sports)
  4. Share your own “risky” experiences from your teen years. Interpret them.
  5. Push them to take real life risks, not mere virtual ones. (i.e. video games)
  6. Reward smart risk taking, where they step out but show wisdom.

What steps would you add to this list? Let’s pool our experience and help each other.

The Role of Risk in a Teen’s Life