Everyone takes risks. In many ways, living is coincident with risk taking.
In general, though, the phrase 'risk taking' is reserved for engaging in activities in which the probability of negative consequences is relatively high.
Negative risk-taking includes drinking, smoking, unsafe sex, drug use, disordered eating, stealing, gang activity and self-mutilation.
These can be dangerous. For instance, motor-vehicle accidents are a leading cause of death among teenagers.
It is generally accepted that the majority of these accidents are substance abuse-related, and they occur most frequently late on Friday and Saturday nights when teenagers are on their outings with parents' or borrowed cars.
Inspiration for risk taking
People engage in high-risk activities for different reasons. For some people, risk taking may be simply something that goes with the job, whereas for others, risky behaviour may give a special zest to life.
For teenagers, however, taking risks usually has a different dynamic. Negative risk-taking looks like rebellion. But it's simply part of a teenager's struggle to test out their identity. It provides self-definition and separation from others.
Teenagers construct a 'personal fable,' according to which they are special and unique-exempt from the laws of probability that apply to others.
It is this belief in being special, in being wrapped in a cloak of invulnerability, that contributes most to teenagers' decisions to take risks. With age and experience, we gradually learn to modify our fable and to bring it closer to reality.
But teenagers' fables have yet to be tampered by the many experiences that will demonstrate their all-too-human weakness. This test may come suddenly, and catastrophically, as it does when they are involved in a serious car accident because the driver of the car was drunk.
What parents and schools can do
Parents can begin fortifying young people against the seduction of the personal fable, with its accompanying myth of invulnerability, before it actually comes into play.
If we teach our children, from an early age, that freedom is always a privilege based on demonstrated responsibility, this understanding will become internalised by the time the child is a teenager. This built-in sense of responsibility will provide a healthy 'reality check' for more daring personal fables.
Many parents will wonder about education and its role in the prevention of risk taking. The reality is that education can take many different forms, some of which are much more effective than others. It is clear, for instance, that teaching young people about the risks of drinking and driving has not kept large numbers of teenagers from continuing this dangerous practice.
What kind of education can help reduce risk taking? Adult example works. Our children are less likely to smoke or drink to excess if we, their parents, don't.
Learning from others. Parents are often silent about their own experiences with risk. It can be important to share this information with teenagers, to let them know that mistakes are not fatal and to encourage them to make healthier choices than their parents made.
Parents need to help teenagers learn how to evaluate risks, anticipate the consequences of their choices and develop strategies for diverting their energies toward healthier activities if necessary.
In addition, hearing about the negative experiences of teenagers who have taken risks and paid the price has a powerful impact.
Parents, working together with school personnel, can bring in young people to talk to the students about what risk taking had done to their lives. These youngsters could have a powerful educative effect upon their listeners.
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