In this post: As our kids grow up, risky behaviors can be worrisome, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for healthy risk-taking to develop good judgment and build your teen’s self-esteem.
We want our tweens and teens to make good choices, but oftentimes, we don’t give them a lot of practice before they reach adolescence.
Kids are going to make mistakes. I mean, their brains aren’t fully developed and they don’t know how to make good decisions yet. They are also hard-wired to seek out adventure and are full of energy. In fact, the part of the brain in charge of self-regulation and thinking through dangers doesn’t mature until age 25 in some people, so some tweens and teens will participate in something risky even though they fully know the possible negative consequences.
That means it’s absolutely natural for tweens and teens to look for a rush and maybe do some things that cause parents to say, “What were you thinking?“
Our gut as parents is to punish kids for taking dangerous risks without acknowledging their quest for excitement. What we need to do instead is figure out how we can meet our tweens and teens’ thirst for excitement while teaching them about appropriate risks.
What Is Healthy Risk-Taking
Simply defined, a risk is the possibility of something bad happening.
Oftentimes when we think of risks for big kids in a negative way, While some risks, such as experimenting with drugs, stunts that can result in severe injury or harm, engaging with people you don’t know online, etc., can give parents grey hairs, that doesn’t mean all risk-taking is bad during the tween and teen years.
In fact, healthy risk-taking can actually help your tween/teen develop into a more confident and capable adult.
The benefits of healthy risk-taking can include:
- Understand boundaries and limits, and better handle peer pressure
- Improve confidence, self-esteem, and overall mental health
- Strengthen decision-making skills and regulate emotions
- Learn a new skill
- Think differently
- Develop resilience and responsibility
- Help them learn how to manage stressful situations
- Create a sense of pride and accomplishment
- Expand worldview
The trick isn’t to avoid all risk, but rather to give them lots of options to learn from healthy risk-taking.
Different Types of Risk-Taking
There are a wide variety of risks we can take. There can be opportunities that are more about the risk of failure, criticism, and embarrassment, such as performing or trying something new. There are physical risks that test our limits and may make us feel fear. And there can be social risks, such as standing up for a kid being bullied or joining an activity that others don’t understand.
To tweens and teens still figuring out their place in this world, these types of gambles can feel like everything.
But the beautiful thing is this: when a young person takes a chance, they often learn so much about themselves.
For example, they learn how to gather a self-assessment. They understand what feels good for them and what doesn’t. They gain practice getting out of uncomfortable situations and trusting their inner voice—something that will last them a lifetime. Plus, they grow an understanding of their own safety and awareness in the world around them. The older and more detached they become from their parents, the more crucial this skill will become.
As with any risk, there is always something at stake. But just because you are taking risks doesn’t mean that you do it haphazardly or without any thought. You can help your tween prepare for risks by educating themselves on the situation, talking to them about potential scenarios, discussing the possible fall-outs and consequences, and most importantly, that if they are open and honest about the risks they are taking, you as the parent will help them along the way.
The most important thing you can teach your child is that negative risks are impulsive and emotionally driven, positive risks are calculated.
While all of this risk-taking is normal, it can be difficult as a parent to sit back and watch these fumbles unravel. But it’s imperative to give them some positive risk-taking opportunities when they’re tweens.
How to Give Your Tween Opportunities for Healthy Risk-Taking
Use the Outdoors as Their Big Kid Playground
Nature is a safe haven but also a perfect place for tweens to take some risks. Try letting your tween go on a mountain bike ride or hike with their buddies without you. If you’re not quite ready for that, perhaps simply allow them to go ahead of you so it feels like they have some independence or engage in some risky play (using a rope swing, ziplining, etc.) Trust me, situations will pop up when they’ll have to make some choices, including healthy risk-taking. Being able to detach in the outdoors will give them confidence safely.
Allow Some Overnights
Letting your child do an overnight at a friend’s house or camp can feel unsettling. But try to find a parent you trust, and start allowing a couple of sleepovers. If this is successful, you can even try overnight camps. I know I personally struggle when my son is at an overnight camp and I look into his empty room, but camps are a great way to help tweens learn about healthy risks. Oftentimes it puts them in situations where they need to make new friends, try new things, and push themselves out of their comfort zone.
Encourage Physical Risk-Taking
As parents, we’re afraid of broken bones. But when our tweens are allowed to take risks with their bodies, it will cognitively help them with choice-making in the future, particularly if you have a thrill-seeking adolescent. So, have your kids sign up for a class or engage in an activity that goes outside of the typical youth sport and require some unique and positive risks for tweens. It’s important to underscore that for some older teenagers, appropriate physical risk-taking can help curb other risky behaviors, such as substance use, unprotected sex, etc.
Additionally, if you have your tweens start out in a more structured environment, the chances your big kid may adhere to safety protocols is more likely than simply watching a YouTube video of their favorite star. Healthy physical risk-taking activities examples include:
- Martial arts
- Weight training
- Rock climbing
Applaud Them for Trying Out a New Activity
If your tween has expressed an interest in joining a new sport or activity, or maybe even volunteering somewhere new, congratulate their sense of confidence. It’s not easy to try something new because the risk of failure and even embarrassment is always hovering, so, the fact that they are taking the plunge is worth a pat on the back in and of itself.
Join a New Club or Social Group
Sometimes well-meaning parents often try to social engineer their kids’ activities. That means they will only sign their kid up for something new if they have a friend that can join them. Instead, we should encourage our tweens and teens to pursue their passions regardless if they know someone else there or not. Trying to meet new friends in any kind of club or group is a huge risk for teens and tweens. It puts them out of their comfort zone and allows them to work on their social skills when they’re out of their element. But encouraging them to find a group of peers that share their interests and love for something can be an incredible way to not only build their self-esteem but also sets them up for real-life experiences like college and work.
Learning to play a new instrument, submitting an essay to a contest, or auditioning for a play is an incredible risk to take. Not only are these tweens and teens trying to learn something new, but they’re performing their art in front of an audience. And in some cases, they may not make it past the audition. What a risk—one worthy of both literal and figurative applause.
Cooking and Trying New Foods
Experimenting with food is a safe way to get your child to take risks. As a family, you can try new foods together. To some picky eaters, this experience alone feels like a big jump in their comfort level. You could try and take it a step further, too. Encourage your tween to prepare the family dinner, bake the dessert for the next family holiday or choose a new restaurant for a special occasion. This is a huge risk for them because others are eating what they’re preparing.
We All Can Learn and Grow from Taking Risks
Parents are key in supporting tweens and teens as they explore new ideas, try something they are interested in, or connect with a different group of friends.
There are several ways you can support your big kids as they take new risks, including:
- Be available and accessible whenever possible, such as showing up to important events, shutting off your computer when they come to speak with you, or asking questions about a new activity.
- Continue to talk about your core values and ask your tween/teen about theirs.
- Support your teen’s interests and be open to new ideas they are learning.
- Help your teen find opportunities to explore individual interests.
- Listen first and only give advice when asked.
- Model good decision-making skills and self-care.
- Be open about risks you are taking or have taken in the past so your tween/teen can learn.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “you gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself: ‘I’ve lived through this. I can take the next thing that comes along.”
Angela-Anagnost Repke is a writer and writing instructor dedicated to raising two empathetic children. She hopes that her graduate degrees in English and counseling help her do just that. Since the pandemic, Angela and her family have been rejuvenated by nature and moved to northern Michigan to allow the waves of Lake Michigan to calm their spirits. She has been published in Good Housekeeping, Good Morning America, Parents, Romper, and many more.
Parenting Teens and Tweens is tough, but you don’t have to do it alone. Here are some posts that other parents found helpful:
Dear Tweens and Teens: You Don’t Have to Compete to Love Something
I Said Yes to My Tween’s Blue Hair Because Picking Your Battles is Important
8 Simple and Creative Ideas to Connect with Your Teen or Tween
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