How to Encourage Healthy Risk Taking

In teen brains, the “GO” light tends to shine bright, but “CAUTION” and “STOP” aren’t completely wired yet. Many times teens give in to temptation by believing that nothing bad can ever happen to them, which is why teens may be more likely to take risks. By guiding your teen toward healthy challenges, you can help steer her clear of taking negative risks and help strengthen her brain at the same time.

If you’re nervous about your teen taking risks, you’re not alone.

Most parents are terrified at the thought of their teenagers taking risks, but that’s because many parents think of teen risk-taking as binge drinking, using drugs, and other negative risks.

But what these parents forget is that there are healthy risks. These are risks that don’t put your teen in danger, but require him to risk something — such as failure or criticism. In the process of taking healthy risks, she’ll gain confidence, courage, and the ability to plan and resist impulses — all important skills she’ll need in life. Most parents understand that when they teach their child to ride a bike, there’s a good chance that their child will end up with a skinned knee — but that risk is worth the reward of motor skills, confidence and self-esteem that come with learning to ride. That’s exactly what healthy risks are about.

Identifying Healthy Risks

The best way to help your teen avoid negative risks is to find healthy risks to substitute for the thrill risk-taking provides in the first place. Most teens are full of enthusiasm, but low on specific ideas. Brainstorming can help them find the perfect meaningful and challenging activity, so that you can help your teen find a focus for her interests and steer her towards taking healthy risks. Here are a few questions to kickstart the conversation:

  • What makes you the happiest?
  • To you, what’s the most valuable thing in the world?
  • What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever done or can imagine doing?
  • If you had eight hours to do whatever you wanted, what would you do?

Is it a physical thing, like sports, that makes her happy? A creative one, like drawing or playing guitar? An emotional one, like volunteering at an animal shelter? Once you know, you can look for healthy risks that produce the same feeling. If you need more inspiration, you and your teen can take a look at what others are doing.

Once your teen settles on an activity, asking simple questions is a great way to help her get going and to run with the idea:

  • How much time do you want to dedicate to this activity?
  • How will you get there?
  • What equipment or tools will you need?
  • Who should you contact?

If she gets off track, don’t just jump in and take over – giving her too much help negates the whole learning experience. Let her navigate through the process of getting started, and then following up on the activity itself.

If she’s hesitant to try something new, talk about your own healthy risk-taking – and your failures – with her. Be sure to model the behavior you want to see in your teen, too, so she has an example set for her (whether she realizes it or not, she’s emulating you).

Bottom Line:

Engaging your teenager in healthy risk-taking not only helps them build character and confidence and helps them avoid negative risks, it satiates their desire to take risks in the first place.