Talking to your teenager about risky behavior

August 1, 2021


As children grow into teenagers and young adults, it’s natural for them to take more risks. Sometimes, pushing the boundaries is harmless, like when your child chooses a new hobby or decides to run for class president. But some types of risks can have harmful consequences. As a caregiver, how can you help your teenager learn the difference?

Taking risks is part of growing up

“Developmentally, adolescents want to define themselves as adults,” notes Alexander Heard, MD, chief medical officer with Adventist Health and Rideout. “They purposely separate themselves from their parents and identify with their peers.”

In that context, a desire to take some risks is normal and expected. At the same time, you can empower teens by arming them with the information and tools they need to stay safe.

What are risky behaviors?

Although it’s natural for teens to be curious, it’s important that they understand what types of risks are dangerous, including:

  • Reckless or drunk driving
  • Alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug use
  • Sexual activity
  • Speaking with strangers online, sexting and other social media risks
  • Trespassing and vandalism

The parts of the brain that manage our impulse control don’t fully develop until around age 25. Because of this, teens are often more likely to act quickly without thinking through consequences.

But there are ways teenagers can have new experiences and find more independence in safe, healthy ways. If you have a child who is a natural thrill-seeker, you might encourage them to channel that energy into hobbies like indoor rock climbing or mountain biking. Teenagers might also feel a sense of independence or autonomy through safer experimentations, such as wearing different clothes or changing their hairstyle. You may not always like your teen’s risk-seeking, but a conversation about wearing ripped jeans is far preferable to a conversation about drug use.

Encouraging your teen to have open conversations

An open, trusting relationship with your teen can lower their risks of engaging in dangerous behaviors. Some statistics show that teens are less likely to behave in risky ways if they have at least one family meal a day. “You don’t have to have ‘the talk,’” notes Dr. Heard. “You can have multiple talks.”

Establish clear, consistent and simple rules for your children. For example, you may have a rule that they don’t spend time at their peers’ houses without an adult present. Or, you may set up guidelines about how often they need to check in with you when they are hanging out with friends.

Staying connected to your child can significantly increase the chances that your child will handle high-risk or high-pressure situations well. And if your child does confide in you about a high-risk activity, such as alcohol use or dangerous driving, do your best to stay calm. “A lot of times, those confessions are small tests,” Dr. Heard points out. “Try to listen without being overly reactionary.” The more you and your teen share openly, the more you build trust.

Show unconditional love

Some research shows that young adults engage in the riskiest behaviors between the ages of 18 to 25. But often, young adults in that age range aren’t living at home. As a parent or caregiver, what can you do?

It’s important to communicate your values to your children—but it’s just as important to model those values. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to do all your parenting by the time your child turns 17,” Dr. Heard shares. But being a parent doesn’t end when your child turns 18. “Have the conversations often and take the teachable moments when you can. Kids are listening even when you don’t think they are.

“As parents, we want to avoid all difficulty for our children,” Dr. Heard says. “But that’s not realistic. Instead, we can ask, ‘what can my child learn from a difficult experience without being permanently scarred?’ Be involved, talk with your kids openly. And the most important thing – make sure they know they are unconditionally loved.”