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.
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
- In high school, 33% of students have smoked within the past month, and 75% of them begin before the age of 19.
- Over 50% of teenagers first have sexual intercourse in high school, and almost 10% become pregnant in high school (CDC 1998).
- 80% of high schoolers have consumed alcoholic beverages, and 63% of high school seniors have been drunk (University of Michigan 1998).
- The prevalence of smoking in youth rose by 33% from 1991 to 1997.
- 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
- 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
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.
- 1.Gruber J. Risky Behavior among Youths. Published online 2001. doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226309972.001.0001
- 2.Millstein SG. Promoting the Healthy Development of Adolescents. JAMA. Published online March 17, 1993:1413. doi:10.1001/jama.1993.03500110081040
- 3.Gans JE. The Cost of Comprehensive Preventive Medical Services for Adolescents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online November 1, 1995:1226. doi:10.1001/archpedi.1995.02170240044007
- 4.JESSOR R. Problem-Behavior Theory, Psychosocial Development, and Adolescent Problem Drinking. Addiction. Published online April 1987:331-342. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.1987.tb01490.x
- 5.ARNETT J. Reckless behavior in adolescence: A developmental perspective. Developmental Review. Published online December 1992:339-373. doi:10.1016/0273-2297(92)90013-r
- 6.Harris KM, Duncan GJ, Boisjoly J. Evaluating the Role of “Nothing to Lose” Attitudes on Risky Behavior in Adolescence. Social Forces. Published online March 1, 2002:1005-1039. doi:10.1353/sof.2002.0008
- 7.Pfeifer JH, Masten CL, Moore WE III, et al. Entering Adolescence: Resistance to Peer Influence, Risky Behavior, and Neural Changes in Emotion Reactivity. Neuron. Published online March 2011:1029-1036. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2011.02.019
- 8.Albert D, Chein J, Steinberg L. The Teenage Brain. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online April 2013:114-120. doi:10.1177/0963721412471347
- 9.Stock JL, Bell MA, Boyer DK, Connell FA. Adolescent Pregnancy and Sexual Risk-Taking Among Sexually Abused Girls. Family Planning Perspectives. Published online September 1997:200. doi:10.2307/2953395
- 10.Romer D. Adolescent risk taking, impulsivity, and brain development: Implications for prevention. Dev Psychobiol. Published online 2010:n/a-n/a. doi:10.1002/dev.20442
- 11.Prinstein MJ. Adolescents’ and Their Friends’ Health-Risk Behavior: Factors That Alter or Add to Peer Influence. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. Published online July 1, 2001:287-298. doi:10.1093/jpepsy/26.5.287
- 12.Felitti VJ MD, FACP, Anda RF MD, MS, Nordenberg D MD, et al. Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Published online May 1998:245-258. doi:10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8
- 13.DeVore ER, Ginsburg KR. The protective effects of good parenting on adolescents. Current Opinion in Pediatrics. Published online August 2005:460-465. doi:10.1097/01.mop.0000170514.27649.c9
- 14.Brown BB, Mounts N, Lamborn SD, Steinberg L. Parenting Practices and Peer Group Affiliation in Adolescence. Child Development. Published online April 1993:467. doi:10.2307/1131263
- 15.Branstetter SA, Furman W. Buffering Effect of Parental Monitoring Knowledge and Parent-Adolescent Relationships on Consequences of Adolescent Substance Use. J Child Fam Stud. Published online February 24, 2012:192-198. doi:10.1007/s10826-012-9568-2
- 16.Pettit GS, Laird RD, Dodge KA, Bates JE, Criss MM. Antecedents and Behavior-Problem Outcomes of Parental Monitoring and Psychological Control in Early Adolescence. Child Development. Published online March 2001:583-598. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00298
- 17.Turner RA, Irwin CE, Tschann JM, Millstein SG. Autonomy, relatedness, and the initiation of health risk behaviors in early adolescence. Health Psychology. Published online May 1993:200-208. doi:10.1037/0278-6184.108.40.206
- 18.Whitaker DJ, Miller KS. Parent-Adolescent Discussions about Sex and Condoms. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online March 2000:251-273. doi:10.1177/0743558400152004
- 19.Ozer EM, Adams SH, Orrell-Valente JK, et al. Does Delivering Preventive Services in Primary Care Reduce Adolescent Risky Behavior? Journal of Adolescent Health. Published online November 2011:476-482. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.02.011
- 20.Negriff S, Schneiderman JU, Trickett PK. Child Maltreatment and Sexual Risk Behavior. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online November 2015:708-716. doi:10.1097/dbp.0000000000000204