Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Parenting Tools

L is for Limiting Risk-Taking with Kids

0511_life_skills_regAndy loves to watch things blow up. He likes violent computer games, fireworks and paint-ball. He’s already been caught purchasing M-80’s online. His parents wonder what Andy’s obsession about explosives is all about.

Jayne is one of those girls who liked to act like a teenager when she was 6 years old, especially the sexy ones depicted on MTV and in celebrity magazines. She loves make-up, shopping and suggestive dancing. It was all her parents could do to keep her from having sex before the age of 14.

Conrad is a regular guy who loves sports, his buddies and fun. Early maturation, good looks and popularity landed him invitations to parties and dates in middle school. At 13, his parents feel like they need to police his phone, computer and even his bedroom windows.

The biological drive for risk-taking is influenced by both genes determining temperament and the brain/hormonal changes of early adolescence. Andy, Jayne and Conrad want to experience excitement due to hard-wired and genetically-programed predispositions originating in their brains. Articles on zeal and yearning delve into the nature of these motivational forces and the ways they can produce both impressive competency-building and scary risk-taking.

A parent’s job is to encourage the competence agenda and limit the risk potential. Since risk-taking is part and parcel of the teenage years, the challenge is to harness the abundant energy available for arousal-seeking and channel it into productive and relatively safe goals.

No wonder parents love to sign their kids up for sports, clubs and volunteering. The more time spent in activities, the less available for risk-taking. Plus, these highly engaging pursuits help to develop teens’ skills, values and character. Not surprisingly, research has demonstrated the link between extracurricular activities and positive adjustment in teens.

Worn out families suffering from poverty, unemployment or illness will frequently lack the resources for securing these pro-social opportunities for preventing problem risk-taking. And when teens move into the “I don’t want to, and you can’t make me” phase, it can require an authoritative and tenacious parent to impose the parent mandate that teens participate in sports, school clubs and service.

But even the most high functioning and engaged teens can get in trouble running with their herd without adult supervision. Have you ever heard the joke about figuring out your teen’s IQ on Saturday night? For every peer that’s added to the mix, drop the group IQ by 10 points. In other words, when arousal is high, judgment is low.

Like virtually all parents of teens, the parents of Andy, Jayne and Conrad are worried about sex, drugs and violence. They want to limit risks while allowing them to develop their unique identities, enjoy their social lives and build competencies. Pulling this off is easier said than done.

Limiting health-compromising risk-taking is the goal—not preventing any exposure to risk. Preventing all risk would require putting teens in a protective gulag somewhere. Childhood is never devoid of risk; so instead, parents need to set their sights on risk-reduction or “limiting risk”.

Parental monitoring is one of the best ways for parents to keep their kids out of trouble. Monitoring includes supervision, knowing where your kids are, and having rules and policies which result in consequences for noncompliance. Research has documented the relationship between parent monitoring and lower rates of risk-taking, including delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug use, and school failure.

Another phrase we health practitioners use a lot is “controlled risk”. If the teen is a born adrenaline junkie, it’s better to encourage ski racing or helidrome cycling than leave her free to find her “highs” in other ways every weekend.

Andy, Jayne and Conrad turned out beautifully, thanks to their parents’ hard work managing risky business. Andy completed a challenging university program in construction management. Jayne sells software to hospitals and is a rising star. Conrad works in finance.

Truth be told (I was their shrink, so I was there)—life was hell for those parents when they were dealing with teen antics, mistakes and risks. But they prioritized building competencies, parental monitoring and the delicate dance of limiting risk-taking, all while maintaining their loving relationships. The rewards of high functioning young adulthood came later.

Even if we do figure out ways for our kids to have fun, build skills and limit access to sex, drugs and personal dangers, a parent will always worry about risk—it is built into our Darwinian code. Protective parents help their children survive adolescence.

Nevertheless, there are disadvantages to overprotection and over-control. A child may rebel against the hyper-control or authoritarianism. Furthermore, a child that isn’t allowed to bike to school, ride buses to a job, or travel internationally misses the opportunity to experience self-discovery and competency-building.

Yep—all sorts of independent actions can result in risk. Parents will do their own “cost/benefit/risk” analyses about what they allow their child to do or not do. There is no recipe for the right amount of freedom to give a child, since parents have different philosophies, tolerance levels for risk and personalities in their kids.

Risk raises anxiety in parents. I don’t think my personal obsession with child injury resulted from just my work on an inpatient unit at a children’s hospital. It’s rational to be emotional about our babies’ welfare! Heck, kids can incur mortal wounds from a jungle gym, not just from ski racing. Luckily, mine have survived both (so far). Parenting is one long risk-taking experience, for the parent and the child.

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