New Research: Promoting Healthy Behaviors in Teens

Fresh off the heels of their report on The Promise of Adolescence, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a new report on programs that promote healthy behaviors in teens. This report was authored by some of the leading thinkers on adolescent health and development from around the country. 

Not All Risk-Taking is Bad

Their findings encourage us to rethink risk-taking during adolescence. Many studies focus on preventing risky behaviors, such as drinking, smoking, or unsafe sex, among teens. While keeping teens safe from harmful practices is always important, an overemphasis on risk-taking may harm young people by painting adolescence as a dangerous period. This hype leaves many parents feeling like they have few options. So, they resort to overly strict parenting styles in an attempt to block potential dangers. Heard of the tiger parent? Or the helicopter parent? Or how about the snowplow parent? (These styles can backfire. Try this instead). 

Experts are now taking a more holistic view of risk-taking during adolescence that aligns with the latest research on teen brain development. There is unhealthy risk-taking, like the behaviors listed above, and its healthy counterpart, like joining a new team or club at school or asking someone on a date. Taking these kinds of risks allows teens to learn from their mistakes, establish their own unique identity, and express their independence. These activities also satisfy the reward centers of teen brains, which are craving new experiences. Parents can help teens engage in healthy forms of exploration by setting appropriate boundaries around safety and having thoughtful conversations about morality.

“What parents need to know is that some risk taking is normal for adolescents, and it can help them become independent and learn who they are,” said Robert Graham, chair of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine committee that wrote the report. “Our report found adolescents can benefit the most from programs that help them learn building block skills, such as impulse control or self-regulation, which they can then apply to new and challenging situations they may face as they become adults. In other words, it is more effective if parents and other adults give adolescents the tools they need to deal with a situation, rather than tell them to avoid risk altogether.”

Programs that Support Healthy Development

The report identifies several characteristics of effective programs that support healthy behaviors and decrease unsafe risk-taking in teens. Parents should keep these in mind when they’re seeking new opportunities for their teens or when schools introduce new programs.

1) Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Programs that support SEL help teens learn about understanding and managing emotions, goal-setting, empathy, and responsible decision-making. These skills are critical for making healthy decisions in a variety of situations. For more on SEL, parents can check out the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). SEL programs are typically mixed-in with lessons at school, so parents should check with their district’s teachers and administrators to understand how their teens are learning these essential skills.

2) Positive Youth Development (PYD)

PYD practices aim to place teens in situations and surround them with people that enhance their existing strengths. This means that parents and other caring adults must move beyond simply helping teens avoid risk. They must also seek out programs that build their character and critical foundational skills, such as self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. Parents can find more information on PYD from the Office of Population Affairs. Boys and Girls Club of America, 4H, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts are great examples of programs that use PYD principles.

3) Inclusion

Effective programs use materials that avoid cultural bias and harmful stereotypes. Instead, they aim to represent and include people from diverse cultures and lifestyles accurately. Parents should also explore programs that include youth with different ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status, sexual orientations, sexes/genders, and disability/ability status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has other great tips on what parents should look for and what inclusion means. Many organizations are striving for inclusive practices, including Boys and Girls Club of America and the YMCA.

Shifting the way we think about risk-taking can be challenging. Sometimes it can feel easier to address problems and fill in gaps. But it is just as important to notice all the strengths and talents teens already possess. When we do so, teens see their own strengths, and that helps them thrive. 

About Andy Pool

Andrew Pool, Ph.D., M.Sc. is a Research Scientist at CPTC. He has a doctorate in Public Health with a concentration in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Temple University.

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