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Why Teens Need To Take Risks -- And How To Help Them Be Smarter About It

Ah, teenagers. New York I get, but drag racing with ATVs? Copulating behind a billboard during Spring Break? Vaping Molly? Why do teenagers seem so ready to jump into the abyss?
07/20/2016 10:46am ET | Updated July 20, 2017
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Two teenagers ran away from our small town in Virginia a couple of years ago, headed for New York, rumor had it. They made it as far as Connecticut--perhaps overshooting their mark--where they turned themselves in.

Ah, teenagers. New York I get, but drag racing with ATVs? Copulating behind a billboard during Spring Break? Vaping Molly? Why do teenagers seem so ready to jump into the abyss?

I talked with Kayt Sukel, author of The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution and Chance, to find out. Sukel talks a lot about teenagers in her latest book; her first talked about the brain science behind love and sex. Turns out it's not that teens are brainless; in fact, their brains are primed for risk-taking. Taking chances is important to being a competent--let alone interesting--adult. And giving teens some space may be the best way to keep them from making catastrophic mistakes while they get there.

Why do teenagers so often do dumb things? I don't think they're all playing chicken or hanging between two cars like in the original Footloose, but from what I hear from my teens, shenanigans happen.

Sukel: Shenanigans absolutely happen. Even your most reserved book nerd type teen is going to take more risks in the teen years. But I don't know that I'd classify them as "dumb." We like to say that teens are immature, or stupid, or just don't think. But, the truth is, teens brains are going through some pretty amazing changes to help them (eventually) become more thoughtful, capable adults. While those changes may not make them the easiest beings to co-habitate with at the time, they do allow for unprecedented learning and skill-building. Taking those risks is critical to helping teens gain the experience they need to grow up and make their way in the world.

Is it good for them on some level?

Sukel: Definitely! Because if teens weren't prone to a little more risk-taking--and, in turn, didn't get that crucial life experience--they would probably live in our basements for their entire lives. Adolescents need to push the envelope a little to learn all manner of skills. How to better sync up their bodies with the world around, how to problem solve, how to work well with others, how to emotionally regulate--really, just generally, how to move about the world independently and to be decent people as they are doing it. They will never learn those skills unless they gain some good experience. And as the saying goes, good decisions come from experience, good experience comes from bad decisions. That's what the teen years are for.

Would teaching kids about their brain help them make the best of these years?

Sukel: I'm of the opinion that learning about the brain is important for everyone. So, yes, by all means, educate teens on how the brain is changing. But I wouldn't expect it to make them any less dramatic. They have to get out there and learn it themselves, unfortunately.

Are boys riskier than girls?

Sukel: Historical studies would tell you, yes - boys tend to be more risky than girls. However, it's hard to tease those old studies apart from new ones. After all, it wasn't that long ago that women were told it was unladylike to participate in business, finances, extreme sports, or anything outside the sphere of the home. New research suggests that girls can be just as risky, especially if we are talking about partying, sex, and the like. Even though they may perceive certain activities as riskier than boys do, they are still taking part. How much of that is biology and how much is societally transmitting information about what a girl "should" be like is extremely difficult to measure.

Can you train them to take risks? As in: Start with smaller things and move up to something big? Or have them get it out of their system in safer ways?

Sukel: There are plenty of "safe" arenas for kids to get their risk kicks. Organized sports, travel, hobbies, what have you--places that allow them to fail forward, make mistakes, and learn as they go. But the best training for risks is to encourage healthy risk taking behaviors by not being a helicopter parent. Let your kids try new things, face the consequences, and still give them a (somewhat) soft place to land. That's the thing that will help them learn many of those important life skills.