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Why Do Teens Engage in Risky Behaviors?

Risky behaviors

“Because they’re young and they don’t know any better.”

That is a common retort to the title question. While anecdotal evidence may support that assertion, the reality is much more complicated. Only in recent years have researchers been able to scientifically validate the causes behind the risk-taking inclinations of adolescents.

Their Brains Cannot Handle Risk

You have probably heard that the human brain does not fully mature until around 25 years of age. Much of the lagging development occurs in the prefrontal regions of the brain, which help govern the risk-assessment abilities of teens. As a result, adolescents are not typically proficient at evaluating the risks of a particular activity (like, for example, taking drugs or drinking and driving).

To compound matters, the ventral striatum, the section of the brain which responds to pleasure, is more sensitive in teenagers than adults. Therefore, not only do teenagers fail to gauge risk levels well, but they are also drawn more strongly to pleasure-seeking (or addictive) activities.

Yes, Peer Pressure is Real

While brain maturation research illuminates the “risky” aspect of teens, other studies reveal that additional factors influence adolescent “behaviors.” More specifically, teens’ behavior is more susceptible to peer pressure than many once believed.

A 2013 study in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science demonstrated how teens tended to be more sensitive to rewards from peer groups than other stimuli. Similarly, a 2011 article in the journal Neuroimage discussed how the part of the brain which regulates distress caused by social rejection is heightened in adolescents, meaning that they tend to respond more to peer negative reinforcement than adults do.

This behavior is apparent even in situations without overt peer pressure. A study published in Developmental Psychology in 2012 described a computerized driving simulation undertaken by both teens and adults. When the teenagers were driving with a same-aged person “in the vehicle with them,” they tended to take more risks behind the wheel – as opposed to the adult driving behaviors which did not change at all depending on whether or not they were alone.

Tips for Parents

Based on this scientific research, there are several steps parents can take to mitigate the odds of their teenagers suffering negative consequences from their risk-taking tendencies. 

  1. Realize that most adolescents exhibit positive behaviors – even those who take risks. Few teens display exclusively “good” or “bad” behaviors. So parents should help encourage these positive behaviors like getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities, or spending time with their families.
  2. The 80-20 rule is relevant to teenage risk-taking. In other words, a relatively small number of teenagers engage in the vast majority of risks. These individuals are known as “multiple-risk” teens and are more likely to fall victim to undesirable circumstances as the result of their behavior.
  3. Find productive ways to satisfy teens’ thrill-seeking proclivities. Encouraging teens to try (supervised) activities like zip-lining, rock climbing, or waterskiing can help them obtain the “pleasure rewards” their brains crave and avoid risky behaviors which can hurt them.
  4. Keep an eye on your teens’ peer groups and how they interact with each other. If you notice that your teenager is especially malleable to the suggestions of his or her friends, it might be wise to limit opportunities for your teen to engage in risky behaviors with that group.
  5. Talk to your teen about risk in a general sense. Ideally, you should try to train your teenager to actively articulate the risk of every new activity before embracing it (i.e., “look before you leap”). Raising the awareness of potential consequences could help your teen avoid making poor decisions.
  6. Finally, parents should never downplay their teens’ use of drugs or alcohol. Instead, they should take action immediately to confront their teen about the problem and perhaps even seek professional help. Because once addiction takes hold of your teens, it becomes much harder for them to change their habits and return to normalcy.

Teenagers do not do “dumb things” because they are unintelligent. They do them because their brains are not yet fully equipped with the tools to distinguish “dumb” from “smart” activities. Armed with this knowledge, parents can better guide their teens’ development so their children can grow into mature adults who can make good decisions.

Risky behaviors

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