1. Teens
  2. Behaviour
  3. Understanding behaviour

Risky behaviour in teenagers: how to handle it

11-18 years

Looking for new experiences is normal for teenagers, and sometimes it involves thrill-seeking or even risky behaviour. If you’re concerned that your child is taking unsafe risks, there are things you can do to help your child stay safe – and ease your own anxiety.

Thrill-seeking and risky behaviour: why teenagers do it

It’s normal for teenagers to want new experiences – although it can be stressful for you as a parent.

Teenagers need to explore their own limits and abilities, as well as the boundaries you set. They also need to express themselves as individuals. It’s all part of their path to becoming independent young adults, with their own identities.

Also, the parts of the teenage brain that handle planning and impulse control don’t completely mature until about age 25. This means teenagers are sometimes more likely than adults to make quick decisions without always thinking through the consequences.

And sometimes teenagers make decisions about potentially risky things to fit in with a group.

Common risky behaviour

It’s normal for you to feel worried about risky behaviour like:

  • unprotected sexual activity
  • sexting
  • tobacco smoking, alcohol use and binge-drinking
  • illegal substance use 
  • dangerous driving
  • illegal activities like trespassing or vandalism
  • fighting
  • truancy.
Teenage interest in new experiences and thrill-seeking can include less concerning behaviour, like trying new tricks at the skate park. This behaviour peaks at around 15-16 years and tends to tail off by early adulthood.

Keeping your child safe

Knowing that teenagers test limits doesn’t make thrill-seeking and risky behaviour any easier to live with. Here are some ideas to help your child think about consequences and stay safer.

Talking about behaviour and consequences
Talking about behaviour and consequences can help your child learn to work out how much risk is involved in different situations. But be careful it doesn’t come across as a lecture or a ban on the behaviour, because this could encourage your child to rebel. For example, you might say, ‘There are going to be times when it’s really hard to say no to drugs. But you know how bad they are for your health and other parts of your life. I really hope you can stay strong’.

Working out agreed rules
If you work with your child on rules and consequences for breaking them, your child is more likely to follow the rules. You’ll need to be flexible and adapt the rules as your child grows and shows she’s ready for more responsibility.

Talking about values
Knowing what’s important to your family will help your child develop responsibility and personal values. You can back up family values by being a good role model in things like drinking alcohol, driving and treating other people respectfully.

Keeping an eye on your child
Knowing who your child is with and where he is can help you protect your child. For example, when you negotiate rules with your child, a rule might be that your child lets you know where he’s going to be and that he phones you if his plans change.

Staying connected to your child
If you stay connected and build a strong relationship with your child through the teenage years, she’s likely to do better at handling situations like pressure to use drugs or be involved in sexual activity.

Encouraging a wide social network
You probably can’t stop your child from being friends with a particular person or group – but you can give him the chance to make other friends through sport, church, community or family activities. And if you make your child’s friends welcome in your home, it gives you a chance to get to know them.

Helping your child handle peer influence
If your child feels peer influence to fit in, you could help her think of ways to opt out without losing credibility. For example, she could tell her friends that smoking gives her asthma. Or she can’t stay out partying because she has a big game the next day and needs to get some sleep. 

Let your child know he can send you a text message anytime he feels unsafe and needs to be picked up, and that you won’t be angry. Some families find that a text ‘code’ – like an ‘x’ or a particular emoji – work wells. Your child texts the code and you call back with a ‘family emergency’ that means your child ‘needs’ to be picked up. It’s also great if there’s another trusted adult your child can contact with no questions asked.

Encouraging safe thrill-seeking

Teenagers need to take some risks to learn more about themselves and test out their abilities. This means that wrapping them in cotton wool is likely to backfire.

If your child is into thrill-seeking, try channelling this energy into safe and constructive activities, like rock-climbing, martial arts, canoeing or mountain biking. Some teenagers might find they love the ‘rush’ of performing in drama or creative arts.   

Another strategy is to give your child autonomy and independence in some areas, so that she can explore her freedom without rebelling.

You might not like it if your teenager chooses blue hair or dresses in ripped clothing, but these are safe ways to experiment. For more information, read our article on shifting responsibility to your child.

Support for handling risky behaviour

Thrill-seeking is a fairly normal part of adolescence, and most teenagers won’t take it to the extreme.

If your child occasionally stays out past curfew, you might not worry too much. But if he regularly does things with dangerous consequences – like using drugs, getting into fights, drinking or breaking the law – consider seeking help and support.

Also seek help if you’re worried that your child’s behaviour is self-destructive or might be a sign of a deeper problem.

The best way to start is by asking your family GP for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional.

If you’re having a hard time talking with your child about risky behaviour, it might help to ask a relative or trusted family friend to raise the subject. Some teenagers find it hard to talk about sensitive issues like sex and drug use with their parents, but they might be willing to talk to somebody else. You could also ask your child’s school counsellor for advice.

More information about teenage risky behaviour

Risky behaviour varies according to gender. Boys are more likely to experiment with fighting and skipping school, while girls are slightly more likely to smoke.

Some teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviour. Some young people have a tendency to seek out sensation more than others. That is, they enjoy the ‘rush’ of adventure and want new and exciting experiences. Children who have a history of negative and defiant behaviour and who have had problems with attention, like ADHD, are more likely to engage in risky behaviour as teenagers.

Other teenagers have a different understanding of risk from their parents. This means they don’t see any real danger in what they’re doing. When teenagers think their actions will have negative consequences, they do think more carefully about what they’re doing (although it’s not clear whether they actually change their behaviour).

Some teenagers are very influenced by their peers and their need to fit in, so they do what they think is ‘normal’ for their group. Other teenagers want to perform, impress, show off or be different. In fact, risk-taking among teenagers doubles when peers are around.

Video

What is risky behaviour?

3:32

In this short video, teenagers say what they think risky behaviour is. For them, it’s doing something you know is wrong or something that could hurt you. They also talk about what they’d do in a risky situation – some have a plan for coping with risk, but others aren’t sure. And mums and dads share their strategies for dealing with teenage risk-taking and thrill-seeking.

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Last updated or reviewed
03-07-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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