Teenage girls are experimenting with risky teen behaviors.

What You Need to Know About Risky Teen Behaviors

4 min.

Risky teen behaviors can sometimes lead to mental health issues—but not always. Here’s how to differentiate between positive and negative risk-taking among young people.

By: Sarah duRivage-Jacobs

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini

Updated: February 8, 2024


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Taking risks is a natural part of growing up—and for many, adolescence is a prime time for that exploration. While risks aren’t automatically positive or negative, patterns of negative risk-taking behaviors can sometimes lead to physical and mental health issues for young people. 

Preventing negative risks when possible and getting adolescents the help they need can reduce the chances of adverse outcomes. Read on for examples of positive and negative risky teen behaviors, plus evidence-based recommendations for seeking support as needed.

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What are some risky teen behaviors?

“Risk” isn’t inherently positive or negative; it simply means an action or behavior with an unknown outcome. Even so, risky teen behavior is often seen as leading to negative consequences, which, in some cases, is true. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), youth risk behaviors may include alcohol and drug use, unsafe driving, and risky sexual behavior. These are examples of risky situations and behaviors that significantly contribute to adolescent health and social problems, including mortality and potential disability, CDC data shows.

At the same time, young people can engage in some of these risk-taking behaviors more safely—a practice known as harm reduction. For example, teens could take steps to use alcohol or drugs in moderation. They could also use barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams to prevent sexually transmitted infections and birth control to prevent pregnancy, reducing instances of risky sexual behavior. 

On the other hand, some risks may have positive outcomes for teens. Without taking risks, teens may miss opportunities to build new skills or explore new opportunities. Families and other community members can support young people in taking positive risks by encouraging them to try out a new sport or sign up for a challenging class. Ultimately, suggesting and supporting positive risks can help teens and young adults foster self-development.

Why do teenagers take risks? Factors that contribute to risky teen behaviors

Taking risks is common during the adolescent stage of human development. Like many elements of development, the reason for this is both physiological and social. Here are some evidence-based factors that experts say contribute to risky teen behaviors.

Tolerance to ambiguity

A study published in 2012 found that young people were more likely than adults to be open to uncertainty (and, as mentioned, risk is fundamentally uncertainty). The researchers hypothesized that this may be because it allows young people to learn and grow from new experiences. 

Brain differences

A 2021 review examining studies on behavior and neuroimaging concluded that adolescents who engage in more risk-taking may have a heightened reward drive in the brain (the “reward drive” is the part of the brain that responds to pleasurable stimuli). Adolescent brains are also predisposed to impulsivity, poor impulse control, the desire to seek out new and exciting experiences, reduced working memory, and fewer inhibitions—all of which may contribute to risky teen behaviors. 

Social influences

Peer pressure and community or family influences can prevent or encourage negative risk-taking behaviors. Young people often replicate the behavior they’re exposed to as children or choose to do certain things based on peer pressure. Demonstrating positive norms, providing safe outlets for learning and exploration, and spending time in healthy, supportive environments can protect against negative, risky behavior. 

Emotional challenges

Negative risk-taking behaviors are particularly associated with issues surrounding emotional regulation, impulsivity, and ineffective or unhelpful coping skills.

Adverse childhood experiences

Young people who had negative or traumatic experiences in early life may be more likely to engage in negative risk-taking behaviors. A history of abuse, neglect, or family substance use may increase the likelihood of substance use or suicidality in the young person.

Experimentation among young people is healthy and expected. Certain risky behaviors, though, can have negative consequences on mental health and put young people in risky situations. For instance, substance use is more common among young people with psychiatric disorders—and it may also lead to more risky behaviors. In some cases, substance use may be predictive of suicidality among young people with depression. Also, depression and negative risk-taking behaviors are positively associated with higher rates of sexually transmitted infections, data shows.

If a young person or teenager is facing mental health issues because of risky behaviors, they may benefit from some extra support. This can include therapy, family support, and engaging in positive activities. Overall, a comprehensive approach that addresses both the personal and environmental factors contributing to the behavior is typically the most effective.

A teenage girl is experiencing the link between risky teen behaviors and mental health issues.

How Charlie Health can help

If a teenager or young adult in your life is struggling with risk-taking or mental health issues, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with complex mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing teen mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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