Worried About Your Teenager?

Worried About Your Teenager?

Making room for adolescents’ healthy risks

As anyone who has ever been a teenager or known a teenager is well aware, they sometimes take irresponsible, even dangerous risks. But some of that risk-taking is healthy, teaching them how to become independent, responsible adults.

Student journalists Jubriel Chaparro, recently 20, and Jermaine Jackson, 18, take risks in atypical ways. In their work with Street Level, a youth media arts center in Chicago’s West Town, they occasionally approach people on the street for interviews; they also have others critique their writing. In both instances, they’re putting themselves — and their work — out there.

“You definitely run into those instances where you’re just like, ‘Man, I messed up on this thing,’” says Chaparro, Street Level’s creative editor and a student at Illinois Institute of Technology. “It’s always a good feeling when you recognize it, and you learn from it and grow from it — that you were able to accomplish something on your own.” 

While teens’ dangerous and deadly decisions make headlines, programs such as Street Level and Chicago Adventure Therapy, which introduces young people to outdoor adventure sports, provide a space to step out of their comfort zone. These opportunities can satisfy teenagers’ biological cravings for risk-taking activities during a critical moment in their brain development. It’s up to the adults in their lives to get out of their way.

“If you give them an outlet for engaging in healthy risk-taking behavior, they’re less likely to have to go find it somewhere else,” said Chicago Adventure Therapy Founder and Executive Director Andrea Knepper, a licensed clinical social worker.

Hard-wired for risk

Teens might be able to crunch complicated math equations and drive, but their brains are still maturing. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates planning and decision-making, isn’t fully developed until around age 25. Meanwhile, the brain’s limbic system, which controls emotional responses, forges ahead.

The result: A brain that is hard-wired for risk-taking as it prepares teens to take what is, for many, the riskiest move of all: leaving their childhood home to become independent adults, separate from their parents.

For some teens, that risk-taking includes experimenting with substances. Some 62% of teenagers in 12th grade have abused alcohol and 50% of teens have misused a drug at least once, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. 

Adults can steer teens to healthier risk-taking activities, but they have to be cognizant of not becoming a barrier. Parents may hover too much, says Amber Przybyla, a licensed professional counselor and art therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Teens’ interests also may differ from their parents’, so parents should avoid steering them into areas that are simply not engaging for them.

“Adults and parents can come down as condescending, know-it-all, or assume that they’re going to do something bad,” Przybyla says. “And I definitely see, across the lifespan, that as soon as a child or teen picks up that an adult thinks they’re going to do something awful, that actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Making room for healthy risks

To encourage healthy risk-taking, parents should rethink and challenge their assumptions and expectations about who their child is and how they can help the child become their own unique self.

Maybe the parent hopes their child will become a basketball star, but the teen prefers competitive online gaming. Instead of discouraging them from trying out for an esports team, support their desire to try something new or difficult. Then, praise them when they do. “Whatever they’re into, ask questions, and really just encourage what they like,” Przybyla says. 

Some healthy risks, of course, will be easier for parents to support. A parent may be fine with esports, but not so keen on body piercings or other outward expressions of individuality. 

Pick your battles, Przybyla says. Body piercings can be removed, after all. “When we give teens more space to breathe, they’re going to take a lot less risk,” she says. “They’re going to feel that they are meeting those developmental needs in a safer way.”

And give teens some grace, Knepper adds. Parents should “reflect on their own behavior as a teenager, and how did their parents feel about what they were doing? Were all the decisions that they made as a teenager smart decisions?” 

Even with the most supportive family, teens can still make not-so-smart decisions. But by nurturing their individual passions and healthy risk-taking, you’ll be more aware of potentially dangerous activities. Those supportive conversations and open lines of communication about their passions will be a constant reminder to teens that they have a trusted adult in their corner whom they can turn to for help.

“That’s going to be a big mitigator when we talk about the risks that teens are facing when it comes to alcohol or potentially breaking the law,” Przybyla says. “It’s really just letting them know that you’re there for them if something does go wrong.”

For teens Chaparro and Jackson, the risks that they’ve taken in their journalisticwork with Street Level has been formative. They’re building skills that will serve them well in college and adulthood. 

“This is kind of a safe haven for me,” says Jackson, a multimedia journalist who will attend Morehouse College in Atlanta this fall.

Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 print issue.