Parenting Teenagers: "Risky" Business

Molly Gathright, MD
Associate Professor, UAMS Department of Psychiatry, Division of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry
Medical Director, Psychiatric Research Institute Child Diagnostic Unit
UAMS Assistant Dean for Graduate Medical Education

Have you ever caught yourself saying something like this?

"I can't believe he did that!"

"She knows better!"

"What were they thinking??"

If you're like most parents, these phrases have crossed your lips a time or two, and you know that raising a teenager is "risky" business. You might even feel like you are part of the movie "Rebel without a Cause."

Although it can be stressful for parents, it might help to know that adolescence and risk-taking go hand in hand. Risk- taking is an important way for teenagers to learn about themselves. It's part of their path to becoming independent young adults. Parts of the teenage brain that impact impulse control do not fully mature until age 25.

There is a steep rise in risk-taking behavior at the time of puberty. The teenage brain is extra sensitive to reward signals when a pay-off for a risk is higher than expected. Teenagers are more likely to make impulsive, emotional decisions without thinking through the consequences. Not to mention, teenagers want to be accepted by their peers!

So, of course, some teenagers take risks because of peer pressure. They want to perform, impress, show off or be different. In fact, risk-taking among teens doubles when peers are around. Now with the world of social media directly at a teen's fingertips, it seems that peers can "virtually" always be around.

Healthy risk-taking can be a valuable experience. Healthy risks that are good to encourage in teens include sporting activities, artistic and creative abilities, volunteer activities, traveling, making new friends or entering competitions.

Channel your teen's risk-taking tendencies into safer, more constructive activities. Unhealthy risk-taking behavior includes driving too fast, texting or talking on the phone while driving, unprotected sex, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, stealing, social media challenges or disordered eating.

Many adults interpret teenage risk-taking as an act of rebellion. However, it may have more to do with identity formation and the way teenagers demonstrate to themselves that they are capable, grown-up and independent from their parents. Of course, they aren't really, which is why you are still necessary.

Knowing that it's normal doesn't make teenage risk-taking any easier to live with. Parents are key in supporting teens as they explore new ideas, try something they are interested in, or connect with a different group of friends. You can help your teen limit negative risk-taking behavior by the following:

  • Teach your teen to assess risk.
  • Determine agreed upon ground rules with your teen. Be flexible and adaptable as they gain independence and show responsibility.
  • Communicate openly and frequently with your teen. Try to stay connected.
  • Be involved in your teen's everyday life.
  • Keep an eye on your teen. Know who he or she is with and where he or she is. Welcome their friends in your home.
  • Talk about core family values. Share your own and ask your teenager about theirs.
  • Be a good role model. Teenagers are guided by how their parents behave. Model decision-making skills.
  • Give your teen a way out. If he or she feels pressure to take risks to fit in, help him or her think of ways to opt out without losing credibility.

The good news is that you, as a parent, are the most influential factor in the decision of teenagers to engage in high-risk behaviors. Research consistently finds that warm, accepting, and authoritative parenting during the teenage years is associated with teens' greater self-restraint from risky behaviors.