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/ Sep 04, 2018

Taking Healthy Risks: Supporting Teen Development


Taking Healthy Risks: Support Teen Development

The teen years are sandwiched between the dependent years of childhood and the independence of adulthood. This makes these years filled with excitement, anticipation, and stress. It is during adolescence when young people prepare for the launch into adulthood, and that the take-off process includes some big risks. This means that a critical part of adolescence must include practice for taking these leaps. It is through exploring new opportunities — taking healthy risks — that young people gain practice. It is our role as parents to assure that this practice is both useful and safe.

The Greatest Risks of Adolescence

There are three daunting leaps an adolescent is preparing for, each playing a role in the foundational task of answering the question “Who am I?”

  • Leaving Home. If you really think about it, leaving a comfortable home where most of your needs are met is crazy. It is a leap of faith to believe that you will be able to care for yourself, let alone for the people who may come to rely on you. “Who am I? I am someone separate from my parents, someone, who can one day build my own household. I need to prove I don’t need my parent(s) — and quickly.”
  • Finding a Way to Earn a Living. Life doesn’t offer free passes often. Teens must begin to imagine how they will contribute to the world and pay the bills. The possibilities today are endless. An efficient way to figure out where you best fit in is to discover the many places you don’t. “Who am I? I don’t know yet, but aren’t I supposed to know by now?!? By the time I graduate high school? By the time I fill in the college essay? I better try out a lot of different roles… one of them will fit. Or, I’ll have to fake it ‘til I make it.”
  • Finding A Romantic Life Partner. Wha-a-a-t?!? A life partner? They’re only teens! But the reality is they’re only a few years away from starting families on their own. Deciding to settle with somebody for a lifetime is a huge risk. It’s almost one beyond compare. The only way you have a decent chance of finding somebody compatible is to meet and have relationships with different people first. “Who am I? Well, I hope that I am somebody that someone, somewhere, will find attractive. In the meantime, I’ll do what it takes to make myself desirable.”

Getting Ready. Testing Limits.

Those three developmental leaps are the big ones among many more. How do you figure out what you want? By trying things out. How do you find out how much you can handle? By testing your limits and thereby learning how far you can push.

Taking chances and possibly failing is a necessary part of adolescence. One we should support — and couldn’t stop even if we wanted to.

Parents have two critical roles during this age of exploration and opportunity:

  1. To support healthy risk-taking
  2. To protect against unhealthy risk-taking

Support Taking Healthy Risks

There are so many ways in which our teens test their limits, explore how they fit into the world… and grow. We should do our best to create opportunities for growth and to surround them with adults who can shape them positively.

These opportunities may include things you are already doing. But you may not realize their critical role in supporting healthy adolescent development. To name a few…

  • Participation in sports teams allows young people to learn to try, fail and recover. It teaches them the importance of collaboration and how to receive and implement feedback.
  • Stretching in academic settings. It is easy to take only the required courses or to sign up for the ones where good grades are guaranteed. Teens who take classes that challenge them will be better prepared to expand in the workplace. Youth who think outside of the box find many ways to use creativity throughout their lives.
  • Joining clubs and after-school activities allow young people to dive into areas that pique their interest or develop skills they won’t learn in school.
  • Trying out for plays, contests, and competitions allow young people to test themselves, occasionally fail and learn to try harder next time.
  • Completing household chores and managing tasks at home allows a young person to begin to walk before he runs. It is hard to think of cleaning as a thrilling activity or paying bills as particularly daring. But they are practice for the day when they will be doing all of these things (and much more) on their own.
  • Engaging in an active social life with peers and dating are important aspects of adolescence. There are bumps and bruises involved in maintaining relationships, especially romantic ones. But the practice teens go through with relationships prepares them for the workplace and for the ups and downs of even the best life partnerships.
Discussion Tip
Parents can’t prevent teens from stretching boundaries. Our job is to help them do so safely.
We need to know when to protect and when to get out of the way.

Protect Against Unhealthy Risk-Taking

For many parents, the concept of risk-taking turns on a protective impulse. However, we must strike the right balance of protection. We need to know when to protect and when to get out of the way. When we overprotect by hovering too closely or restricting too tightly we send two messages. “I don’t trust you,” and, “I don’t think you can handle this on your own.” Despite the best of intentions, we harm teens when we prevent them from trying new things.

There are two keys to protect against unhealthy risk-taking. First, we prepare our children to navigate the world. Second, we set very clear boundaries beyond which they cannot stray. Within those boundaries, we allow them to benefit from lessons learned.

Preparation Is Protection for the Future

All situations can lead to very different outcomes. The key to swaying the outcomes in a positive direction is preparation. When we prepare our teens, they will be able to expand their horizons and try new things safely. Driving serves as a perfect example. It is a potentially dangerous new privilege. It is also a wonderful new skill that broadens opportunities to (literally) navigate an expanded world. We don’t say to our 16-year old, “Go at it, see what happens.” We painstakingly make sure they understand the rules of the road and the mechanics of cars. Then we supervise them as they gain new skills. We prepare them, to protect them.

Establishing Boundaries

We couldn’t hold teens back from testing limits if we wanted to. The best way to encourage healthy risk-taking is to establish firm boundaries they can push against. The key is to set those boundaries clearly around issues that affect safety and morality. When we set boundaries in a way that feels random, or as a matter of convenience to meet our own needs, we may just light a fire of rebellion within our teens. On the other hand, teens appreciate when we keep them safe and on-track to do the right thing.

Take a Deep Breath

One of the greatest challenges for loving, involved parents is to get out of the way and allow teens to make mistakes. Rest assured, that growth occurs most rapidly during the moments that sometimes leave us holding our breath. When we keep our teens under our watchful eyes, the learning will occur within the safe borders we set. We offer the experiences that allow them to stretch now, recover from mistakes within safe boundaries, and prepare them to be more successful in the future.


Setting Boundaries

Adolescence is a time to test limits. Parents should set boundaries that permit exploration, but that also keep children safe. Click through to discover ways you can effectively create limits for teens.



Begin by reminding teens how much they are loved. When children know parents are on their side, they are less likely to feel as though you’re out to stop them from having fun and more likely to understand you’re preparing them for a successful future.



Point out that rules are a fact of life for everyone. Doing so helps teens understand living within certain limits is a normal part of life.



Make expectations clear. Talk with teens when emotions aren’t running high. Review established limits as well as the consequences of ignoring them.


Be Consistent

Young people should be aware that boundaries for keeping them safe won’t change. Other limits are flexible, expanding as they demonstrate trustworthiness.

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Ken Ginsburg

Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the CPTC, and a Professor of Pediatrics and adolescent medicine specialist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books as well as a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” The CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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