You don’t like it, but many teens engage in risk taking to one extent or another. Here’s how to navigate through this risky business.
Nashville dad David Winkler has four children as different as night and day. He and his wife, Cathleen, actually drew up a contract with one of their sons when he was a teen because he was outgoing and prone to taking risks.
“We drew up a contract with him just to establish some boundaries,” Winkler says. The contract had stipends in it like “you have to be in at a certain time of night” and “you cannot travel outside of our county.” And while this may seem extreme to some parents, there’s no questions that teen behavior genuinely puzzles parents.
The driving force behind risky behaviors in teens is brain development, experts say. While hormones alone used to be the culprit, “what we now know is that the frontal lobe is still maturing and that it is considered the part of the brain that handles executive functions like thinking, planning and reasoning, understanding consequences and controlling behavior,” says Judy Freudenthal, clinical director at the Oasis Center, a youth-centered agency in Nashville that works to empower teens and their families to create change for themselves.
This limited brain ability to grasp the consequences of risk-taking behavior in adolescence helps explain three key dynamics surrounding teen attitudes about risk.
First, many teens suffer from an invincibility fable, or, the idea that bad things happen to other people. According to Jessica Giles, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, “The chance of going to jail … the chance of getting pregnant … the chance of crashing your car is objectively considered less probable. Part of this might result in adolescents doing things like drugs, dropping out of school or engaging in sexual activity, that to them actually doesn’t seem as risky.”
Second, even when teens recognize danger, they do not weigh risk as heavily as adults do. “In their decision making, benefits play a greater role in influencing their decisions than risks do,” says Giles. For example, driving fast is a thrill for some teens who are likely to view the benefit of the thrill as more important than the potential risk of a car crash.
Third, joining others in a risky venture is not only about acceptance, it’s also about social cohesion, that is “adolescents recognizing the value of shared experiences,” says Giles. “So, if you’re not smoking pot and all your friends are, it’s not just necessarily that you won’t be accepted, it’s that you won’t be a part of that experience. Those shared memories are part of what creates cohesion and affiliative bonds.”
“What we try to help parents recognize is that during adolescence, there is never so much change except for in infancy,” says Freudenthal.
Social cohesion is status, too. One way to stand out in the group is to take even more risk than other members in the group. Risky behavior among teens buys status and power. “Status and peer standing are very, very important in adolescence,” says Giles.
The bottom line, Giles says, is that “adolescents are going to take risks either way, to varying degrees of severity and to varying degrees of concern.”
The good news is that risk is not always bad, “because this is the time in life where teens need to try things out and discover who they are, what they’re good at, and form their identity. Trying things out is the most important way of getting at some of that,” says Freudenthal.
But if all teens are going to take risks to some extent or another, what can a parent do? Should everyone be writing contracts? The key to helping teens through this important stage of development says Freudenthal, is to direct their natural tendencies.
“We try to support parents and young people in understanding what’s going on and help channel some of their natural proclivity for thrill-seeking behavior because it is a natural product of adolescence,” she says. Examples of positive risk taking include trying out for a team or auditioning for a play. Each involves risk because there is no guarantee that the teen will make the team or get the part.
Parents play an important role in guiding teens toward taking appropriate risks. “We really help young people discover what their passion is and find outlets for that and encourage their family to support them in that,” says Freudenthal. For example, parents of teens who love sports are encouraged to attend games.
Helping teens channel energy may alleviate the boredom that can lead to substance abuse. “The sensation seeking that goes on is about wanting thrills and adventure; it’s about not wanting to be bored very often,” says Freudenthal.
So while teens share basic characteristics and may not always make the best decisions, parents can tailor their approach to their kids’ individual personalities. “I think you just have to know your child, know what his personality is, know what his bent is,” says David Winkler.
Winkler’s 18-year-old son, Elliot, is reserved and less likely to take physical risks so his parents encourage him to get out more. While this is his senior year of home school, he’s enrolled at a local community college for some additional coursework. “It’s been a good experience for him to get out and be challenged with that,” Winkler says.
“You just have to know your children and their interests, and then figure out what kind of risks are associated with the things they’re interested in and try to monitor that,” says Nashville mom of two, Carla Snodgrass. Like the Winklers, Snodgrass watches for risks that each of her kids are more likely to take, monitoring her son’s use of PC chat rooms and her daughter’s outings with friends.
The Winklers try to provide rules while also allowing the kids to develop their own personalities. “Our philosophy with children is to help them become the best person they can be. Not trying to mold upon them exactly what we want them to be although we do provide a lot of guidance,” Winkler says.
Giles thinks this approach is often more successful than a dictatorial attitude. “Adolescents benefit from authoritative parenting, high structure combined with warmth, support and unconditional love,” she says. Even when parents make a decision teens disagree with, teens “appreciate being heard and given a voice in the process,” says Giles. “They benefit from open dialogue and a safe space for conversation.”
Snodgrass agrees. “If kids can talk to their parents, they have a better shot at figuring out right from wrong than if they feel from the very beginning ‘I can’t tell my mother this, or I can’t tell my dad that because they’ll do something.'” If parents want teens to listen, they need to listen to their teens as well.
Providing a Safe Environment
Parents can mitigate teen tendencies toward risky behavior. “To minimize risk, I always try to make my house an open environment for friends because kids want to be together, they want to hang out, they want to be where other kids are,” says Snodgrass.
“Parents can also create homes in which opportunities for risk taking are minimized,” says Giles. “This means not leaving children home alone for the weekend, enforcing curfews and monitoring what children store in their rooms and the garage.”
Teen thrill seeking is a reality at least partly based in brain development. Fortunately, a safe environment, coupled with respect, structure, understanding and open communication, reduces the chances that teens will take unnecessary and excessive risks.
Eric Olive is a freelance writer and father.
There’s a game of self-destruction that’s gaining momentum in the 9- to 14-year-old age group called the “choking game.” Also called the “pass out game” or “space cowboy game,” it’s a form of self-asphyxiation in which the child cuts off oxygen to the brain through strangulation. When he feels as though he’ll faint, he releases the restraint (i.e. rope or belt) from around his throat. When the pressure is released, the blood rushes to the brain creating a “high.” Sometimes fainting will occur if the restraint is not removed quickly enough.
Kids initially started “playing” the choking game, but now some are doing it on their own at home. If a child is performing self-asphyxiation and passes out before releasing the restraint, he essentially strangles himself.
Signs that may indicate that your child is playing or has played the choking game include: marks on the side of the neck, a flushed face or excruciating headaches or a rope or belt lying randomly about for no reason.
To learn more about the choking game, talk to your pediatrician or visit teenchokinggame.com.