The Science Behind Risk-Taking Teens (And How To Protect Them)

Many parents get carried away by the thought of their teens using drugs, having unprotected sex, and driving drunk because those are the horrors stories we hear about on the news and from other parents. Research shows us that teenagers aren’t crazy, but they are very impressionable and can make all sorts of ill-advised decisions. Here, we’ll go into the science behind risky teenage behavior and offer you solutions to help protect your child.

The Science Behind Risk-Taking Teens

Why Do Teens Flirt with Disaster?

They Need to Experience Everything for Themselves

The first reason that teens engage in risk-taking behaviors is because they rely on experience to tell them right from wrong. Experts find that no matter how you frame the information, lecturing won’t leave as much of an impact on teen decision-making as dealing with consequences because experience is the best teacher for a teen. In this way, teens crave new and exciting experiences to help them test their choices. They are more willing to ignore warning signs and not consider the consequences because they desire firsthand experience to tell them if something is a good idea or not. No matter how much you tell them that underage drinking is dangerous, teen feel a need to test their own hypothesis through experience.

Peer Pressure

As your teen gets older, they become more susceptible to peer pressure and will be more easily swayed by social cues. For example, a variety of studies have demonstrated that teenagers experience riskier driving habits in the presence of friends. If your teen is 16 years old, there is a good chance they’ve been to a party where drugs are being used and people are having sex. Your teenager is more likely to engage in these behaviors if they think those around them are doing it, even if they understand the risks involved.

Cognitive Exhaustion

Tired teens rely on efficient thinking instead of risk-reducing thinking. To explain this, we’ll talk about what many psychologists consider ‘system one’ and ‘system two’ thinking.

System one refers to immediate, reactionary thoughts that are the first to come to our mind because these thoughts take the least effort to arrive. On the other hand, system two thinking is when we slow down to consider many options to come up with the best choice. For example, when you’re arguing with someone and you’re angry, system one thinking can give us a poor decision like throwing a punch or yelling louder, whereas system two thinking allows us to slow down and come up with a compromise.

When teenage brains are exhausted from staying out late, getting burnt out from a massive load of school work, or dealing with constant emotional stress, they rely more on system one thinking than system two thinking as it’s more efficient. Teens are particularly at risk of making a poor decision, like getting in the car of someone who has been drinking, when their brain is tired and prevents them from effortful decision-making.

Protecting a Risky Teen

Encourage Positive Risk-Taking

The first thing to remember if you’re trying to dissuade your teen from risky behavior is that teens are going to take risks regardless of how much you coach them about the consequences. So, you might as well encourage them to take risks that will benefit them.

We recommend that you introduce your teen to competitive sports, auditions for school plays, running for positions, and thrill-seeking activities like rock climbing to get them to take risks in safer environments. When your teens put themselves at safer risks to accomplish worthwhile goals, their desire for independence and experimentation will be satisfied. It could be that they won’t feel the need to take other risks such as trying a new drug.

Teenager smoking

Teach Your Teen to Self-Regulate

Self-regulation is an awesome way to combat social pressures. It’s all about teaching your teen to develop a stronger sense of self that won’t be influenced by outside forces like peer pressure. One way to increase your teen’s ability to self-regulate is to talk with them about what they might do in peer situations. Role playing circumstances like being offered a joint at a party can help your teen come up with a wise outcome that they can use when they are under real social pressure.

Ensure Your Teen is Well-Rested

To protect your teen against risky, sudden decisions, we recommend that you inform them of the difference between system one and system two thinking. Try letting the know that being tired means they are less likely to think through all of their options. It could also be good to make a rule in your house that your teen cannot go out with their friends if your teen isn’t well-rested due to the risk of bad choices. If you try to restrict your teen to only going out when feeling mentally fresh, they will be more likely to make a smart decision in a risky situation.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Now you’ve got it. You understand that risk-taking is a normal part of teenage behavior, but you can make the most out of it by introducing your teen to positive risks and reducing their susceptibility to social pressures. While teenagers learn best through experience, these tips will help you keep your teen safe, so they can start making the right choices more often.

About The Author

Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.


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  1. I completely relate to the first part that kids need to find out for themselves. They need to make the mistakes and learn but it is very hard as a parent to accept that! I know that I sometimes panic when I see my daughter doing something and I then start shouting never do that again but I then realize its so important to let her do it and be there for her then let her feel she needs to do this behind my back and then have all the peer pressure.

  2. So true they need to learn from it on their own thank you with 2teens I’m so great full for this

  3. This is absolutely spot on. Thinking back to when I was a teen I wanted to try and do everything and hearing of my husband’s teen years scares me lol.

  4. This is a very insightful and educational article which I will definately use when my son gets to his teen years. Thanks for the great advise ☺????

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