Truth or Dare: Risk Taking In Teenagers

Adolescence in an age when there is so much development in the brain it is like a bullet train with poor brakes. This can be very emotionally confusing. The teenage brain can decide things like shaking a tree to push it over can be good fun without thinking of the risks. Indeed, the teenager in question was in a wheelchair when we discussed how it had happened. We take more risks as teenagers than at any other age and are still developing decision-making and self-control skills. In particular, substance abuse can be an added risk factor for affecting the adolescent brain, when it is still developing. Unless you decide to be a stuntman, you are probably going to take more risks as a teenager than at any other time.

Risk taking is important from a developmental point of view and important for children to learn the skills to step out of their comfort zone, take a risk, and face success or failure in a positive way. It is a right of passage to adulthood, so to speak where we are expected to make independent choices and take different risks in life.

In fact, most adults agree about the kinds of things that are important for adults to do with young people encourage success in school, set boundaries, teach shared values, teach respect for cultural differences, guide decision making, give financial guidance, and so on (Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2001). However, fewer actually act on these beliefs to give young people the kind of support they need.

Helping children take healthy risks and learn to develop their identity, is important. Having the opportunity to be asked open ended questions so they think through what they are feeling or what they feel is right or wrong. Adolescence is the first time, when individuals have the cognitive capacity to consciously sort through who they are and what makes them unique. Identity refers to more than just how adolescents see themselves right now; it also includes what has been termed the “possible self”—what individuals might become and who they would like to become. The process by which an adolescent begins to achieve a realistic sense of identity also involves experimenting with different ways of appearing, sounding, and behaving. Each adolescent approaches these tasks in his or her own unique way. So, just as one adolescent will explore more in one domain (e.g., music), another will explore more in another (e.g., adopting a certain style or appearance). Professionals whose role involves advising parents or adolescents can assure them that most experimentation is a positive sign that adolescents feel secure enough to explore the unknown. Adolescents who fail to experiment in any realm are sometimes seen to be more stable but may, in fact, be experiencing more difficulty than youth who seem to flit from one interest to another. Adolescence is a time when experimenting with alternatives is developmentally appropriate, except when it seriously threatens the youth’s health or life. Although it may seem a simple strategy, professionals and trusted adults such as family members and parents can help adolescents begin to define their identity through the simple process of taking time to ask questions and listen without judgment to the answers. It is amazing how many youth are hungry to discuss these issues with a trusted adult, and how few are offered the opportunity. Discussing these issues can also help adolescents to develop their new abstract reasoning skills and moral reasoning abilities.

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