The risk-taking of teenagers: why they need space to grow

(just like you did, when you were an adolescent)

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There are different types of risk and many that seem benign to a reasonable adult might be the riskiest to an adolescent.

Adolescence is a risk-taking jungle that we have all worked to navigate. At some point, the pre-frontal cortex has to create perspective and it does this by assessing, processing, understanding, and learning from challenges and risks. The prerequisite to all of this is risk, itself. To be presented with risk is the easy part. To be able to understand why something is risky is much more difficult.

What this does mean for each adolescent, though, is very different. The idea of what is risky spans a great spectrum. For some it might be as extreme as skydiving or drinking and driving. For others, it could be about talking to someone unfamiliar or posting on social media. In order for kids to start to develop their risk calculus, they have to be encouraged to take their space and time with decisions which you or I might find totally innocuous- even silly (REMINDER: every person reading this took the same time and space for similar decisions during their own adolescence). For example, responding to- or how to compose- a text message, or whether they should be seen with a certain friend in a certain place and how that might be perceived can each be tremendously challenging. We think: clear communication is important; spend time with friends, whenever you have the chance. A teen’s understanding, though, is so much more delicate and nuanced. This is nothing new even though the particular challenges may be, perhaps. Obviously, text messaging was not around when you were a teen, but the decision-making process they are undertaking was. Try not to be too surprised. In fact, give them more room to navigate these scenarios.

Your friends or society, in general, might tell you that your teen is being selfish by fussing over these details but actually they are being exactly as they should. Selfishness is imperative to building perspective. For teens, self interest can be more akin to self-preservation. And this demonstration of vulnerability is the essence of building empathy and emotional intelligence. Because teens are so concerned with the way the world is perceiving all of their big decisions (though, again, these may be small to you), their fragility and aversion to judgment from parents and close adults is heightened.

Try to remember this. Always. With decisions that might seem so disproportionately irrelevant to you, a teenager could be processing them in the most significant and meaningful way possible. Oftentimes it is not what they focus on that matters. Instead, it is how they are able to sort through it and construct their conclusion. You see them agonizing over the wording of a text message. But this does not mean that wording of text messages will always be distressing.

You see them agonizing over the wording of a text message. But this does not mean that wording of text messages will always be distressing.

What it means is that they are learning the calculus of communication and trying to play through the scenarios of the world around them and the impact of language. This is good. This is development. It is a much better builder of perspective than, say, bungee jumping off a bridge or other extreme sports, which are not actually geared to teach anything about processing and recognizing risk. They are simply risky, which is very different.

Some things to remember when you find yourself questioning or criticizing your teenager’s decision-making:

1) Take a deep breath.

2) Give him/her space.

3) Be encouraging (“I trust you will make a good choice”, “I’m so proud of how much you care”)

4) Bring up a happy memory you both share.

5) When he/she is ready to talk, discuss something that is not personal but more global (i.e. a recent news article, book, or film, for example).

6) As always, tell him/her “I love you”.

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