Healthy tween risk-taking: Here's what to know

Risk-taking is making a choice when the outcome of that choice is unknown.
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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

Risk-taking is making a choice when the outcome of that choice is unknown. In younger years, risk-taking may have simply meant making new friends, raising a hand in class, or trying to climb a tree. In middle school, risk-taking can be more reckless and have greater consequences. Sexual experimentation and drug or alcohol use are risky behaviors that can start in middle school. The 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey found nearly three out of ten, or 28 percent, of eighth-graders have tried more than a few sips of alcohol, and 12 percent of eighth-graders report having been drunk. Talking with your child early about risk-taking can help her understand what is acceptable for your family and may help her understand the consequences of those risks.

Not all risk-taking is bad. In fact, taking risks is a part of growing up and maturing. Some research suggests adolescents are even programmed to take risks. According to neurologist and Parent Toolkit expert Judy Willis, the brains of middle-schoolers are still developing, and the areas of the brain that control the ability to make informed decisions aren’t fully formed until at least age 18. Any time your middle-schooler has a chance to try something new and fail or succeed she’s taking a risk. Examples of healthy risks at this age are volunteering at a local soup kitchen, helping to clean up a park, joining a competitive sport, trying a new activity, or making new friends. By supporting healthy risk-taking in your teen, and empathizing when things don’t work out as she had hoped, you can help her build up her sense of resilience and self-esteem.

Talk to your child about logical consequences of risky behavior. For example, alcohol use leads to impaired judgment, like getting into a car with older friends who have been drinking, being impaired physically, or feeling physically ill the next day. It can be hard to talk to your child about these issues, but the more you create a dialogue when your child is young, the more influence you may have. It can be helpful to use news events, issues in the community, or incidents at school as a way to start this conversation with your child in a way that will grab her attention.

Try to remember the risks you took as an adolescent. It can be easy to forget the things you did as a teen that infuriated your parents or now seem really stupid, but remembering that there’s a bit of you in your child’s risk-taking can also help you identify with her. You should enforce consequences for broken rules or risky behavior, but offering a bit of empathy can go a long way in your relationship with your child.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Judy Willis, Neurologist, Teacher, Author, International Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Sean Slade, Director of Outreach, ASCD.