High-Risk Behaviors in Your Teens

Is life with your teen beginning to feel like a scene out of Rebel Without a Cause? Learn why risk-taking and rebellion go hand-in-hand.


Defining Independence

+ enlarge image Shepherd teens towardsage-appropriate independence.

One consequence of a teenager's struggle with dependence and independence is a rapid rise in risk-taking behavior. For some, risk-taking takes the form of pursuing new interests, trying on new clothing, experimenting with hairstyles, and getting that first real job. For others, it can mean drinking, smoking, drug use, criminal behavior, violence, and sexual activity.

The reason teenagers engage in risk-taking behavior is that it's one way to demonstrate to themselves that they are capable, grown up, and independent from their parents.

Of course, they aren't really, which is why you are still necessary. It is your job to set limits on your teens' risk-taking and steer them toward age-appropriate ways of experimenting with their newfound desire for autonomy.

Feeling Invincible; Being Vulnerable

Risk-taking in adolescence is especially dangerous because teenagers often have a sense of invincibility. While acknowledging that some behaviors can be risky, teenagers frequently say to themselves, "But it won't happen to me." So teenagers begin smoking cigarettes because "I won't get hooked." Or they experiment with sex because "Pregnancy can't happen to me."

Take, for example, one common area of risk-taking that can have very tragic consequences: reckless driving. Each year, motor vehicle accidents account for almost 40 percent of adolescent deaths. That's why insurance companies charge such high rates for teenagers, especially for teenage boys. What's more, when motor vehicle accidents involve a fatality and a teenager is driving, about 50 percent of the time that teenage driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.1 or higher, well above the legal limit in most states.

Unfortunately, too many parents think that adolescence is a time to relax family rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is especially important that parents of teenagers set and enforce clear limits. This is because the mistakes made during adolescence can have far more drastic and long-lasting consequences than the mistakes made during early childhood. So far from loosening the reins, parents of teenagers must become increasingly vigilant -- precisely because teens are so prone to engaging in high-risk behaviors.

All Grown Up...Almost

Teenagers are creatures of great contradictions. At one moment, they are testing limits and experimenting with independence. The next, they are seeking closeness with and reassurance from their parents that they are still loved and valued members of the family.

Adolescence can also be a time of great loneliness, a sense that no one has ever before experienced such a miserable state of being. Yet it is also a time of intense peer activity and expanding interpersonal relationships.

The teen years are also a time of frequent assertions of self-assuredness, as adolescents seek increased autonomy in decision-making. But these years are a time when adolescents experience tremendous doubt that they can, in fact, go it alone.

These many contradictions -- the "push and pull" of adolescence -- are the inevitable result of the primary task of the teenage years: to achieve a sense of personal identity separate from parents.

This search for identity, as noted author and psychologist Erik Erikson described it, is a struggle to know who they are, what they believe in and value, and what they want to accomplish and get out of life. The outcome of this search is neither certain nor easy. So have patience with your teen.

Making this struggle especially pressing is the fact that soon -- very soon -- they will be leaving home and on their own. Despite the bravado of adolescents, deep down, many teenagers are more than just a little bit frightened by the prospect. So they are constantly testing themselves to see how much of life they can handle on their own. In this respect, the teenage years are really a more mature version of the terrible twos.

The reason that 2- and 3-year-olds can be so frustrating to parents is that they are trying to determine just how capable they really are. "Let me do it!" is the frequent cry of the two-year-old struggling to put his or her shirt on right-side forward.

Teenagers may be confident that they can put their shirt on correctly (although most still don't seem to understand in which direction a baseball cap is supposed to go), but are often less self-assured when it comes to handling more mature expressions of independence and autonomy from Mom and Dad, such as how to resist peer pressure to use alcohol or illegal drugs.

From this struggle between independence and autonomy on the one hand and dependence and a desire for family affiliation on the other, flow two important consequences: first, a reticence to seek advice from one's parents, and second, an increase in risk-taking behavior.

Loosening the Reins

+ enlarge image Teens must earn the right to autonomy.

This doesn't mean that teenagers should be denied all opportunities for autonomy and independence. But rather than simply giving them these opportunities by virtue of age alone, teenagers should be required to earn them. Teenagers will, of course, protest this idea, but deep down even they know that they are not yet ready to be on their own.

The good news is parents are the most influential factor in the decision of teenagers to engage in high-risk behaviors. Research consistently finds that warm, accepting, and authoritative parenting during the teenage years is associated with teens' greater self-restraint from high-risk behaviors. Having a good relationship with your teen is not enough. You also have to monitor him or her closely.

Why Vigilance Isn't Enough

Parents who know where their kids are and supervise their activities are the least likely to have teens who smoke, drink, have sex, or get into trouble with the law. It is important to keep in mind that parental awareness of high-risk behavior is not the same thing as parental monitoring. Nor is mere awareness sufficient to protect adolescents from engaging in high-risk behaviors.

Research, for example, has shown that parents who are aware their teens drink alcohol tend to have teens who are more, not less, likely to drink and drive. The lesson: Simply increasing your knowledge of your teen's whereabouts and activities will not reduce deviant behaviors. This awareness must be accompanied by effective parenting practices to reduce deviant behaviors or foster more appropriate behaviors.

Not only do positive parenting practices and good family relationships contribute to greater self-restraint in the teenage years, they also have positive effects that last well into adulthood. According to research conducted by Lawrence Fisher, PhD, professor at the School of Medicine, University of California at San Francisco, and S. Shirley Feldman, PhD, associate director of the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University in California, adolescents who perceive their families as emotionally close, orderly, and stable (compared to those reared in emotionally disconnected families) engage in significantly fewer risky behaviors. These teens are less likely to:

  • regularly drink alone
  • drive a car while under the influence of alcohol
  • engage in promiscuous sexual activity
  • use drugs
  • smoke cigarettes

Furthermore, this research shows that family emotional closeness during adolescence is a more powerful predictor of whether teens would engage in high-risk behaviors than is the youth's own personal and emotional functioning, including self-esteem and overall mental health.

In other words, teens who feel close to their families are less likely to put themselves in danger. Given that good parental practices and family relations reduce the probability of high-risk behavior, it is not surprising that ineffective parenting and poor family relations increase the odds that a teenager will engage in high-risk behavior.

In fact, parental conflict and inconsistency, the absence of parental monitoring, coercive parent-teen relationships, and parental drug and alcohol use are all linked to high-risk behaviors during adolescence. What all this means is that you as a parent have a pretty important role to play.

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