Risky behaviour: why pre-teens and teenagers do it
It’s natural for teenagers to want new experiences.
This is because teenagers need to explore their own limits and abilities, as well as the boundaries you set. Some young people really love the ‘rush’ of thrills, risks and adventure. And most teenagers want to express strong personal values and a sense of themselves as individuals.
It’s all part of their path to accepting responsibility, forming identities and becoming independent young adults.
Also, teenagers are sometimes more likely than adults to make quick decisions without thinking through the consequences. This is because the parts of the teenage brain that handle planning and impulse control don’t completely mature until about age 25.
Teenagers might understand risk differently from adults too. This means they don’t see any real danger in what they’re doing.
And sometimes teenagers do potentially risky things to feel a sense of belonging to a group. They want to perform, impress, show off or do what they think is ‘normal’ for their group.
Common risky behaviour
Risky behaviour might include:
- unprotected sexual activity
- sexting and other risky uses of social media
- tobacco smoking and alcohol use including binge-drinking
- illegal substance use
- dangerous driving
- illegal activities like trespassing or vandalism
Teenage interest in new experiences and thrill-seeking can include positive risk-taking behaviour, like trying new tricks at the skate park. This risk-taking behaviour peaks at around 15-16 years and tends to tail off by early adulthood.
Encouraging safe risk-taking
Teenagers need to take some risks to learn more about themselves and test out their abilities.
If your child is into thrill-seeking and risk-taking, you can try channelling this energy into safe and constructive activities, like rock-climbing, martial arts, canoeing or mountain biking. Some teenagers might find they love the ‘rush’ of performing in drama or creative arts.
Another strategy is to give your child autonomy and independence in some areas, so that they can test themselves and experiment without doing antisocial or illegal things. For example, you might not like it if your teenager chooses blue hair or dresses in ripped clothing, but these are healthy ways to experiment. For more information, read our article on shifting responsibility to your child.
How to keep risk-taking teenagers safe
Here are some ideas to encourage your child to think about the consequences of their behaviour and stay safe. This can help you and your child negotiate this stage of their development.
Talk about behaviour and consequences
Talking about behaviour and consequences can help your child learn to work out how much risk is involved in different situations. But be careful it doesn’t come across as a lecture because this could encourage your child to rebel.
For example, you might say, ‘There are going to be times when it’s hard to say no to drugs. But you understand how bad they are for your health and other parts of your life. I know you can stay strong’.
Agree on rules
If you work with your child on rules and consequences for breaking them, your child is more likely to follow the agreed rules. You’ll need to be flexible and adapt the rules as your child grows and shows they’re ready for more responsibility.
Talking about values
Knowing what’s important to your family will help your child develop responsibility and personal values. You can back up family values by being a good role model in things like drinking alcohol responsibly, driving safely and treating other people respectfully.
Keep an eye on your child
Knowing who your child is with and where they are can help you protect your child. For example, when you negotiate rules with your child, a rule might be that your child lets you know where they’re going to be and that they phone you if their plans change.
Stay connected to your child
If you stay connected and build a strong relationship with your child through the teenage years, they’re likely to do better at handling situations like pressure to use alcohol and other drugs, engage in vandalism or have unprotected sex.
Encourage a wide social network
You probably can’t stop your child from being friends with a particular person or group. But you can give them the chance to widen their social network through sport, church, community or family activities. And if you make all your child’s friends welcome in your home, it gives you a chance to get to know them.
Help your child handle peer influence
If your child feels peer influence to do risky things, you could help them think of ways to opt out without losing credibility. For example, your child could tell their friends that smoking gives them asthma. Or they can’t stay out partying because they have a big game the next day and need to get some sleep.
Let your child know they can send you a text message anytime they feel unsafe and need to be picked up, and that you won’t be angry. Some families find that a text ‘code’ – like an ‘x’ or a particular emoji – work wells. Your child texts the code and you call back with a ‘family emergency’ that means your child ‘needs’ to be picked up. It’s also great if there’s another trusted adult your child can contact with no questions asked.
Support for handling risky behaviour
Risk-taking is quite common in adolescence, and most teenagers won’t take it to the extreme.
If your child occasionally stays out past curfew, you might not worry too much. But if they regularly do things with dangerous consequences, consider seeking help and support. This might include things like using drugs, getting into fights, drinking or breaking the law.
Also seek help if you’re worried that your child’s behaviour is self-destructive or might be a sign of a deeper problem.
The best way to start is by asking your GP for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional.
If you’re having a hard time talking with your child about risky behaviour, it might help to ask a relative or trusted family friend to raise the subject. Some teenagers find it hard to talk about sensitive issues like stress, mental health, sex and drug use with their parents, but they might be willing to talk to somebody else. You could also ask your child’s school counsellor for advice.