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What You Need to Know About Teenage Risky Behaviors

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Risk taking behavior can be a problem in adolescence—but it isn’t always. Here’s how to know the difference and what you can do to help.

Clinically Reviewed By:
Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

Taking risks is a natural part of growing up—and for many, adolescence is a prime time for that exploration. New experiences offer the teenage brain opportunities to make decisions, make mistakes, and ultimately learn and expand horizons.

While risks aren’t automatically positive or negative, patterns of negative risk taking behaviors can sometimes lead to adolescent physical and mental problems. Preventing negative risks when possible and getting adolescents they need can help them reduce the chances of adverse outcomes.

Read on for examples of positive risks and negative risks for adolescents, plus expert recommendations for seeking support for those who need it.

What is considered high-risk behavior for adolescents?

The concept of “risk” simply means an action or behavior that has an unknown outcome. Risks aren’t inherently positive or negative—they’re just associated with uncertainty. 

Even so, risky behavior is commonly perceived as behavior that can lead to negative consequences. This is especially true for adolescents, who are in an age group that’s known for higher levels of risk taking than adults, especially between the ages of 19 and 29. 

Here are some examples of dangerous risky behavior in teenagers:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these behaviors significantly contribute to adolescent health and social problems, including mortality and potential disability.

At the same time, some of the previously mentioned risk taking behaviors can be engaged with safely. For example, teens could take steps to use alcohol or drugs with moderation. They could also use barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams to prevent sexually transmitted infections, and birth control to prevent pregnancy. 

Positive risk taking behavior for adolescents

On the other hand, risks may have positive outcomes for teens. Without taking risks, teens may miss out on opportunities to build new skills or explore new opportunities. Families and other community members can support positive risk taking by encouraging new methods of mindfulness or even self-care. They could also try out a new sport or sign up for a challenging class. 

Ultimately, suggesting and supporting behaviors that promote positive self-development and healthy relationships will help teens and young adults engage with healthy risk taking.  

How common is risky behavior among teens?

Substance use:

  • About two-thirds of young people have tried alcohol by 12th grade.
  • About half of young people in 9th-12th grade have tried marijuana.
  • About two-fifths of young people in 9th-12th grade have tried cigarettes.
  • About one-fifth of young people in 12th grade have used a prescription medication for which they didn’t have a prescription.

Unsafe driving:

  • In 2020, around 2,800 youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 19 died in car crashes.
  • The fatal crash rate for teen drivers is almost three times higher than it is for those ages 20 and older. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. young adults.

Violence:

  • The third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24 is homicide. It’s the number-one leading cause of death for non-Hispanic Black young people.
  • LGBTQIA+ young people have higher rates of multiple forms of violence than non-LGBTQIA+ young people.
  • As of 2019, about 1 in 12 young people experienced physical dating violence and/or sexual dating violence.
  • Young people who were assigned female at birth or who identify as LGBTQIA+ are more likely to experience physical and sexual dating violence.

Risky sexual behavior:

  • In 2018, about half of the 26 million new sexually transmitted infections (STI) happened among young people ages 15 to 24.
  • Higher STI rates can be attributed to stigma as well as a lack of health insurance, regular STI testing, and transportation.

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Why do teenagers take risks?

Taking risks is common during the adolescent stage of human development. Like many elements of development, the reason for is both physiological and social.

Experts have different theories about why a teenager may be more likely to engage in negative risky behaviors:

Tolerance to ambiguity

A study published in 2012 found that young people were more likely than adults to be open to 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 that examined studies on behavior and neuroimaging concluded that adolescents who engage in more risk taking behavior 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 less inhibitions.

Social influences

Family, peer, and community influences can either prevent negative risk taking behaviors or encourage them. Young people often replicate the behavior they’re exposed to as children, whether that’s through friends or family members. Demonstrating positive norms, providing safe outlets for learning and exploration, and spending time in healthy, supportive environments can protect against negative risk taking behavior. 

Emotional challenges

Negative risk taking behaviors are particularly associated with issues surrounding emotional regulation, impulsivity, and/or 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.

When can risk taking behavior become a problem?

Experimentation among young people is healthy and expected. Even risk taking behaviors that are considered negative, such as substance use or sex with multiple partners, can be done safely if the right preventative steps are taken.

Negative risk taking becomes an issue, however, if someone is engaging in behaviors that can be physically dangerous, like unsafe driving or violence. It can also seriously impact mental health. 

Researchers have found a clear relationship between negative risk taking behaviors and certain psychiatric disorders:

  • Substance use is more common among young people with psychiatric disorders—and it may also lead to engagement in more risky behaviors. In some cases, substance use may be predictive of suicidality among young people with depression
  • Eating disorders have also been linked to other negative behaviors, including substance use and self harm. 
  • Depression and negative risk taking behaviors are also positively associated and have been shown to be related to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
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What treatment options are available for teens with negative risk taking behavior?

Mental health treatment can be helpful for teens who have patterns of negative risk taking behaviors. Therapeutic modalities that can be especially effective include: 

Motivational interviewing

Motivational interviewing uses structured interviews to support people in identifying negative feelings and thoughts, shifting those feelings and thoughts, and creating healthier habits. Motivational interviewing can be effective in helping teens manage substance use and other negative risk taking behaviors.

Psychoeducation

Psychoeducation involves setting goals, learning new skills, and using these tools to make coping easier. This intervention can be used to provide education on the consequences of negative risk taking behaviors along with motivational interviewing and other therapeutic modalities.

Family involvement

When families are included in mental healthcare for a young person or teenager, success in treatment is more likely. Family involvement can support people in treating substance use, remembering to take medication, and showing up to treatment.

How Charlie Health can help

Our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is an evidence-based care option for clients ages 12-28 who are experiencing mental health challenges including depression, substance use disorder, self harm, and suicidality. 

Charlie Health’s IOP personalizes a plan using therapeutic modalities like motivational interviewing, psychoeducation, and family involvement through weekly supported groups, individual therapy, and family therapy. Charlie Health accepts major commercial insurance plans as well as Medicaid.

If you’re not sure if an IOP is right for your child or teenager, our Admissions team is standing by 24/7 to answer your questions. Reach out today.

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