Supporting Teens to Take Healthy Risks

Taking Healthy Risks

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 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’s the role of parents to ensure this practice is useful and safe.

Supporting Teen Development

There are three daunting leaps an adolescent is preparing to take. Each plays a role in the 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, who will 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 Life Partner. Wha-a-a-t?!? They’re only teens! But the reality is they’re only a few years away from starting families of their own. Deciding to settle with somebody for a lifetime is a huge risk. 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? I hope I am somebody that someone, somewhere, will find attractive.”

Testing Limits

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 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. The two critical roles parents have during this time of opportunity are supporting healthy risk-taking and protecting against unhealthy risks.

Taking chances and possibly failing is a necessary part of adolescence.

6 Healthy Risk-Taking Opportunities

There are so many ways in which teens test limits. As they explore how they fit into the world parents must create opportunities for growth. Part of this includes surrounding young people with adults who are positive influences. It also means offering opportunities to explore their communities and stretch their social circles. Here are six ways to easily support healthy adolescent development.

  1. 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.
  2. Stretching in academic settings challenges teens in ways that prepare and expand their workplace potential. It also encourages them to think outside of the box, a skill that fosters creativity throughout their lives.
  3. Joining clubs and after-school activities let young people dive into areas that pique their interest or develop skills they won’t learn in school.
  4. Trying out for plays, contests, and competitions permits tweens and teens to test themselves, occasionally fail, and learn to try harder next time.
  5. Completing household chores and managing tasks at home are practice for the day when young people will be doing all of these things (and much more) on their own. While it is hard to think of cleaning as thrilling or paying bills as daring, they important learning opportunities.
  6. Engaging in an active social life with peers and dating are important aspects of adolescence. There are bumps and bruises involved in maintaining relationships. 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.

Protecting Against Unhealthy Risks

For many parents, the concept of risk-taking turns on a protective impulse. Parents must strike the right balance of protection, learning when to protect and when to get out of the way. Overprotecting by hovering or restricting too much sends two messages. “I don’t trust you,” and, “I don’t think you can handle this on your own.”

To protect against unhealthy risk-taking parents must prepare children to navigate the world while still setting clear boundaries around issues that affect safety. If boundaries feel random teens may rebel. But teens appreciate feeling safe and being kept on-track to do the right thing.

To guide our children away from unhealthy risk-taking we also need to hold conversations that go beyond telling them what not to do. We need them to understand the values we hold dear and the expectations we have for them to be the kind of people who will flourish in this world.  We share with them our hopes that they will be the kind of people who care for and about others. This is an important strategy to help them define and follow their own values, even if they are different from those of their peers.

Preparation is Protection

Young people who are prepared are able to expand their horizons and try new things safely. Driving, for example, is a potentially dangerous new privilege. It’s also a new skill that broadens opportunities to (literally) navigate an expanded world. Parents don’t tell a 16-year old, “Hit the road. See what happens.” Instead, they make sure their teens understand the rules of the road and supervise them as they gain new skills. In other words, parents prepare teens in order to protect them.

Getting Out of the Way

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 often occurs during those moments that leave parents holding their collective breath. When teens are kept under the watchful eyes of parents, they are free to explore within safe borders. New experiences allow them to stretch, recover from mistakes, and prepare for a successful 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.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at 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 including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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