Teens are Risk Junkies

It probably won’t take much to recall a time when we (as teens) or our children made questionable decisions. This week on Parenthetical we are reposting an article from March 2014 that talks about some of the science behind why teens engage in risky behaviors, as well as the benefits of calculated risk-taking for youth development. The author of this post, Becky, talked with Wisconsin Public Radio about teen brain development and risky behavior.

Check out the interview HERE!

A father tells a story about his otherwise bright, capable, well behaved sixteen-year-old son. The boy had apparently decided to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, along with a couple of his friends, to crash a neighbor girl’s slumber party. As the young men were lurking in the dark around the young lady’s yard, a patrol car happened to cruise past and see them. The police officer called for them to stop. Foolishly they took off running instead. Though this story could have taken a very tragic turn, the police officer did not take life-threatening action. The boys beat it for their respective homes as fast as they could and jumped into bed, hoping that no one would ever be the wiser. However, in the middle of the night, the boy’s father was alerted by another parent.

This is a pretty typical teenage escapade. What makes this particular story unusual is that the father of this teen was none other than Laurence Steinberg, one of the most renowned researchers and scholars of adolescent development in the United States today.

Teens are physically, socially and emotionally programmed to engage in behavior that those in other life stages would consider ludicrous.  Although this is hardly new information, a better understanding of the teenage brain helps to explain why this is the case. Scientists have discovered that during adolescence young people have greatly elevated levels of dopamine, a neural transmitter which when stimulated creates the sensation of pleasure in the brain. Experiencing risk can literally create a thrill by increasing the transmission of sensation through dopamine, stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain. To simplify a very complex physical process, teens are indeed risk junkies. Like riding a roller coaster, teens engaging in risky behavior can experience an intense  sensation of euphoria that they want more and more of.

To complicate matters, the section of the brain which controls decision-making is still not fully developed in adolescence. Consequently, the quest for thrill seeking manifests itself prior to the ability to make swift, healthy decisions as to what constitutes reasonable risk.  As one researcher characterized the situation, “it is like a high speed engine without the driver,” which seems to indicate that risk taking is very dangerous for teens (like a speeding car without a driver). Actually, this is not necessarily true.

By austinevan on Flickr
By austinevan on Flickr

In fact, taking risks can be a very healthy part of development. Risk taking can serve the very important function of helping adolescents to define their identity, to practice independence and to learn from their mistakes. The key is to maximize the opportunities for your child to engage in healthy risk, which leads to growth.

I knew some parents who had to move when their child was already in the midst of high school. They knew that the transition would be very challenging for their child and that the child would not initially know any of her peers. They wanted their child to feel that she had the ability to meet this challenge and not become enmeshed in unhealthy behavior choices. So the summer they made the move, they sent their fifteen year old, all by herself, across the ocean to live with friends for a month. Many of their friends and relatives were very critical of their choice, believing that sending their unaccompanied adolescent to another country was far too dangerous. These parents knew that they were encouraging their child to take risks, however, they also were confident in the care she would receive from the family that she visited. It was a calculated risk and she came home with a renewed sense of self-reliance that helped her through the difficult first months at a new high school.

What are some calculated risks that appeal to or might develop your teen? For some young persons it may be as simple as asking someone out on a date, snowboarding recklessly down a steep hill or auditioning for a part.

Healthy or unhealthy, it is important to remember that most teens are none the worse for wear when risk taking is within a reasonable range. Limited experimentation, even with behaviors that push the parameters of legality, is normal. Not that such behavior should openly be accepted by parents, as teens equate limits with love. However, should your child experiment with dubious activities, keep in mind that all is not lost. Eventually his decision-making skills will catch up and you will find yourselves laughing over these mishaps together.

Brain development is only one of a number of factors that interact together and contribute to teen risk taking. Teens’ mental health, peer relationships, relationships with parents, and different decision making criteria all influence teen risk taking.  If you’d like to read more about the science behind teen risk taking, we recommend Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion from the book Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

What are some calculated risks that appeal to your teen? What calculated risks might you encourage to help your teen develop?


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and a pre-adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.