Reasons Teens Engage in Risky Behavior

Hispanic teenaged girls in park
Group of teenagers talking. (Image: Ronnie Kaufman/Blend Images/Getty Images)

The teen brain is hardwired to take risks even if a young person knows about the associated dangers. According to Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard in “The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development,” after infancy, adolescence is the time in a person’s life when she undergoes the most developmental changes. By knowing about the changes young people experience during the teen years, you’ll have a better understanding of why they take risks.

The Teen Brain

Adolescence is when the limbic system and forebrain begin to develop. This development shifts a teen’s concrete thoughts into more abstract ones. While the limbic system develops during the early teen years, maturity of the frontal lobe doesn’t occur until a teen is in his 20s, according to McNeely and Blanchard. The limbic system is the reward center of the brain, and the frontal lobe guides impulse control and the understanding of long-term consequences. Consequently, teens don’t completely understand the full extent of consequences associated with risky behaviors. They also gain more satisfaction from taking risks than adults, especially if the desired outcome occurs.

Testing Boundaries

Teens naturally seek independence as their brains mature. Part of risk-taking involves testing boundaries to see whether adults and peers approve. It’s normal for a teen to test boundaries in regards to fashion, hairstyles and music. She may even try different styles of communication while exercising her new abstract-thinking skills, which sometimes results in yelling and back-talk. According to McNeely and Blanchard, teens are more likely to engage in risky behaviors when parents don’t set and enforce clear, safe, realistic and age-appropriate boundaries that are paired with logical consequences.

The Search for Self

As a teen attempts to discover a sense of self and seek autonomy, he’ll try to do things on his own and think for himself. Developing autonomy involves trying out different ways of thinking and behaving. When a parent doesn’t accept a teen for who he is, encourage self-expression, and offer support in areas like planning and problem-solving, the young person may turn to risky behaviors to figure out his own strengths and weaknesses.

Wanting to Fit In

Changes in hormones and the limbic system cause teens to develop social awareness. While these changes help teens learn to empathize with others, they also make them seek the approval of others as they distance themselves from their family members, according to the American Psychological Association. When a teen trades the influence of positive role models for the influence of peers, she may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors. This can become problematic if she perceives social benefits, such as peer approval, from such behavior.

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