Kids take risks.
According to Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, there’s not much parents can do to stop that. Risk-taking seems to be hard-wired into young brains, especially in adolescence.
Trying to get kids not to take risks, he says “is an uphill battle against evolution and endocrinology, and we’re not going to win it,” he says. “Going out in the world is an inherently risky thing to do.” Kids have to take those risks in order to become adults.
So how can parents start conversations that help kids take the healthy risks—and avoid dangerous ones?
Elementary age kids, as every parent has observed, aren’t prone to long term thinking. So most parental risk-management for kids at that age involves keeping them out of risky situations. “You could have a conversation with a 16-year-old,” about road safety, says Steinberg. But “you just want to stop the 8-year-old from driving.”
Still, it’s never to early for parents to encourage kids to think about consequences, both good and bad. So if kids have questions about risky situations, parents can return ones of their own, like “Why do you want to do this? Do you think something good will happen? Do you think anything bad might happen?”
Middle school kids are approaching adolescence, when body chemistry makes them more likely to engage in risks—both good and bad. So parents can talk with them about the fact that they’re going to need to take more risks as they grow up. And start conversations about how to tell whether something is a good risk or a bad one. A risk, according to Steinberg, is a situation where “you don’t really know in advance what the outcome is going to be.” But some risks are better than others. And this is a good time for parents to encourage kids to think about questions like, what are the chances this will turn out well? What are the chances something might go wrong?
The risks high school kids are tempted to take might seem incomprehensible. But Steinberg says it’s important for parents to realize that from the kid’s point of view, “there’s an upside that may only be visible to the adolescent.” And that’s a good place to start a conversation. Understanding what motivates a kid to take a risk can help parents channel that motivation in positive ways. And help kids avoid dangerous risks. Kids don’t take those dangerous risks because they don’t know better, says Steinberg. If you ask teenagers in the abstract about risky behaviors, “they all know that they’re risky.”
But “in the heat of the moment,” says Steinberg, “the rational part of kids’ brains is often overpowered.” So part of helping kids managing risk is helping them think about the kind of situations they do and don’t want to be in before they get into them.