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6 Strategies to Reduce Risky Behavior in Teens and Pre-teens

Adolescence is a period of changes filled with risks and opportunities. When teens transition from childhood to adulthood, they are vulnerable to potentially harmful behaviors that can adversely affect their health and lives. But risky behavior in adolescence can be prevented according to studies.

A group of teens watch and grin as one skateboards lying down on his chest.

What is risky behavior?

Risky behavior is an action that has at least one uncertain outcome that can put the individual or others at risk of harm.

Common risky behavior examples:

  • Unsafe sexual behavior
  • Unhealthy dietary behaviors
  • Selling drugs
  • Weapon use
  • Illegal activities such as stealing or vandalism
  • Smoking or vaping
  • Using marijuana or cocaine
  • Binge drinking
  • Skipping school
  • Dropping out of school
  • Dangerous driving
  • Not wearing a seatbelt when needed
  • Not wearing a helmet when needed

Adolescent risk-taking behavior statistics

Here are some statistics regarding teenage high-risk behaviors in the United States (2001 prevalence study) ​1​

  1. In high school, 33% of students have smoked within the past month, and 75% of them begin before the age of 19.
  2. Over 50% of teenagers first have sexual intercourse in high school, and almost 10% become pregnant in high school (CDC 1998). 
  3. 80% of high schoolers have consumed alcoholic beverages, and 63% of high school seniors have been drunk (University of Michigan 1998).
  4. The prevalence of smoking in youth rose by 33% from 1991 to 1997.
  5. Marijuana use among teenagers doubled from 1991 to 1997.

Despite these alarming statistics, the youth homicide rate fell 40% from 1993 to 1997, and teen births declined by 20% from 1991 to 1998.

Factors Causing Risky Behavior Amongst Teenagers

Fifty years ago, most adolescent morbidity and mortality were due to natural causes. Nowadays, preventable behaviors such as driving accidents, substance abuse, and sexuality are among the most common reasons for adolescent mortality and morbidity ​2,3​.

For decades, psychologists and researchers have searched for the causes of risky behaviors amongst the youth. Here are some of the theories that have been proposed over the years.

  • To demonstrate their mature status ​4​
  • Greater sensation seeking during this period
  • A predisposition is influenced by social and environmental factors, such as family, peers, school, community, and culture ​5​
  • “Nothing to lose” attitude ​6​
  • Poorer impulse control
  • More susceptible to peer influence ​7​
  • Lack of self-regulation ​8​

As of now, no single reason or proposed theory has been identified as the cause for teenage reckless behavior. 

Researchers, instead of pinpointing a cause, have found certain elements are risk factors. With each added risk factor, the likelihood of reckless activity in teens doubles.

The risk factors include: ​9–12​

  • Family dysfunction
  • Friends’ substance use, violent behavior, and suicidal attempts
  • Lack of friends with prosocial behavior
  • Social acceptance of risky adolescent behavior
  • Violent behavior
  • Depression
  • Childhood abuse

6 Strategies to Reduce Risk-Taking Behavior

Generally, the earlier risk-taking begins, the greater the risk of negative consequences.

Young people who engage in risky behaviors early in life, such as sexual activity and drug use, often suffer from worse health later in life, lower education attainment, and lower economic productivity as adults. Their risk-taking behavior may last longer in late adolescence and early adulthood, which may also influence risky behavior in adulthood.

It is therefore crucial for parents to intervene as early as possible.

Good parent-child relationship

An authoritative parenting style and a good parent-child relationship are protective factors against adolescent risky behavior.

Good parenting practices demonstrate a significant, enduring, and protective influence on adolescent development.

In particular, a good parent-child relationship deters involvement in high-risk behavior ​13​

Kids are more open to parental advice when parents have a good relationship with them. In addition, they are more likely to adopt their parents’ values and resist bad decisions.

Keeping an eye without being intrusive

Parents’ monitoring of adolescent peer environments is another strong protective factor. It is consistently found to have a huge influence on reducing their children’s risky decisions ​14​.

Adolescence is marked by a dramatic increase in time spent with peers. Peer group norms or exposure to their families can heavily influence teens’ negative behaviors, sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and conformity.

Monitoring is an effective way to counter negative peer influence. Parents, however, can prevent risky behavior only if they have a good relationship with their children and receive monitoring information without being intrusive ​15​.

If parents monitor teen behavior through coercion, psychological control, or other invasive techniques instead, the child is more likely to exhibit risky behavior and have worse outcomes ​16​.

Provide autonomy with guidance

It seems counterintuitive, but teens and preteens are less likely to take unsafe risks when they have more autonomy.

Autonomy is not complete freedom to do whatever one wants. It’s an exercise in self-governance, self-regulatory behavior, and independence, with parental guidance and limits.

Research shows that teens who receive autonomy support from parents are more likely to avoid getting into risky behavior ​17​.

Give clear boundaries and reasons

It goes without saying that parents discuss acceptable behavior and set clear boundaries to prevent harmful risk-taking. What’s more important, though, is that parents must explain the reasoning behind their boundaries.

The lack of self-regulation or self-restraint is one of the primary reasons why teenagers take risks. During the teenage years, the cognitive-control system in the prefrontal cortex is still developing. As a result, a teenage brain is less capable of engaging in an adult-level “top-down” cognitive control of impulsive behavior. Social processing, however, is undergoing rapid changes.

Discussing the reasons behind limits with teens and preteens can help them develop a decision-making process that underlies their behavior choices.

Talk about risky behavior

Besides monitoring, parents can prevent deviant behavior by communicating openly and teaching their children. Teenagers and preteens who are educated about the risks associated with reckless behavior tend to have fewer problems.

Talk to them about the pros and cons of such behaviors. Help them consider the risks in various situations. Discuss the detrimental physical or mental health impact when things go wrong.

Teenagers who get information about sex from their parents tend to be less influenced by their peers when it comes to sexual behavior. But in the absence of education and communication from parents, teens and preteens may turn to their peers for information and be considerably influenced by them ​18​.

Education can also be provided by health care providers or educators. An intervention of this type has a strong effect on reducing teens’ involvement with dangerous behaviors ​19​.

Seek treatment for trauma 

It is important for teens who have suffered trauma, such as abuse, to receive mental health care.

One of the consequences of child abuse is that maltreated youth are likely to have their first consensual intercourse at a younger age. One-night stands are more likely to occur among neglected, sexually abused, and physically abused youth. Teenage pregnancy is more prevalent among female victims ​20​.

After traumatic events, teens must be monitored for mental health issues or counseled by a mental health professional even if they appear fine.

Learn more about Parenting Teens.

Final thoughts on risky behavior

Exploration and discovery are hallmarks of adolescence. Risk-taking, although sometimes dangerous, is a desirable trait, not an accident. 

We can encourage them to take healthy risks, such as gaining autonomy safely, trying new sports, learning new skills, and engaging in confidence-building activities.


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