Taking healthy risks

In teen brains, the GO light tends to shine bright, but CAUTION and STOP aren't completely wired yet. That's why teens may be more likely to take risks. By guiding your teen toward healthy challenges, you can help him mature and (hopefully) distract him from taking negative risks.


If you think taking risks is a bad thing, you're not alone.

Psychologist Lynn Ponton says, "Two things are absolutely clear about teens: They are going to take risks; and most of their parents are terrified about it."1 It's no wonder. A Teens Today study showed that many parents think of teen risk-taking as reckless driving, binge drinking, using drugs, and so on — all negatives.2

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But there are healthy risks. Take snowboarding, starting a small business, or entering an art show for example. None of these put your teen directly in danger, but they all require him to risk something (failure, criticism, etc.). In the process, he'll gain confidence, courage, and the abilities to plan and resist impulses — all important skills he'll need in life.

1 Lynn E. Ponton, The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do

2 Stephen G. Wallace, The Myth of Risk: Promoting Healthy Behavior by Challenging Teens


Learn what floats your teen's boat.

Taking risks — even negative ones — is all about feeling good. This little quiz can point you toward healthy risks that your teen may enjoy (even if he's a couch potato).

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Then help your teen focus on some healthy risks...

There may be lots of healthy (and cheap!) opportunities right in your community — trying out for a sports team or auditioning for a play, for example. Try getting ideas at the library, his school, or your place of worship. Or from sites like these:

  • American Camp Association Describes the benefits of positive risk-taking and how going to camp taps into them.
  • Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) Has loads of ideas and information about positive activities and risk-taking written from a teen's point of view.
  • What Kids Can Do Includes interviews with teens who took risks and "created powerful learning with public purpose."
  • Smart Girls Know Contains articles and lists of books, magazines and sites all aimed at giving girls ideas and encouragement.

Once your teen settles on something, he may need help getting started. (Remember, his planning and strategy skills aren't developed yet.) Just be careful not to overdo it. Giving him too much help may wreck his self-confidence.

...and understand the consequences of negative ones.

Teens' impulses and motivations develop long before their ability to judge or control.

Negative risks — experimenting with drugs, speeding, cheating on a test, shoplifting, riding with a drunk driver, etc. — often have negative consequences. Lots of times, our teens give in to temptation by believing "Nothing bad's going to happen to me." Their brains aren't optimally wired to stop and think first.

Before your teen gets in a sticky situation, have a talk. Describe the short- and long-term consequences of negative risks. ("If you cheat, you'll get expelled and you won't graduate. Without a diploma, you may not find a good job.") Refer to stories, news items, personal memories, or scenes from movies, books or TV shows — whatever it takes to make your point clear.

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