Healthy Risk-Taking for Teens and Adolescents

understanding the principles of harm reduction - and why they matter
harm reduction healthy risk-taking
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Spectral

Article co-authored by Mariah Wilson, RHN

Risk-seeking behaviours are a normal part of adolescence. They're a result of the natural drive to seek independence and autonomy, partnered with a still immature prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that helps humans think through the implications of decisions and make deliberate choices. While it may be normal for adolescents to take risks, those risks don’t have to have severe consequences and approaching parenting from a perspective of reducing harm may be helpful.

Six principles of harm reduction

Harm reduction is an evidence-based approach typically used in healthcare settings to help reduce the likelihood and severity of injury when it comes to risky behaviours. Harm reduction interventions, although most often used for targeting addiction and substance-related harms, have been expanded into other public health concerns such as texting and driving. They can also be used as a practical and non-judgmental framework for parents to have conversations with their teenagers about substance use and abuse, sexual activity, drinking and driving, poor health habits, suicidality, and other high-risk activities. Harm reduction is broken down into six practical principles that focuses on positivity and non-judgemental support. 

Humanism

Humanism ensures that we approach teens with respect and dignity in order to foster open dialogue. Adolescents take part in risky behaviours because they benefit from them in some way, and it builds trust and attachment when we acknowledge this from a non-judgmental viewpoint. If we can foster empathy for the underlying reasons for their actions, teens feel valued and validated. This is not the same as condoning the behaviour; it is simply meeting them halfway, by understanding the reasons behind their actions.

Emma, 11, has a new cell phone and is desperate to start creating accounts on social media. Her dad is uncomfortable with her dipping her toe into the social media world right now, but wants to honour her point of view:

“Emma, I hear you telling me that all your friends are using these platforms, and that you’ll feel left out if you don’t. I get that it’s important to you to feel part of the group.” (Try to resist the urge to follow this up with a “but.” Let the sincere statement of empathy sit between you.)

Pragmatism

Pragmatism is understanding that no one will ever make the “right” choices 100 percent of the time. It is about being realistic, not expecting perfection, and relating to your child that you want them to be fully aware about the health implications of (insert risky behaviour here). It is taking an active role in providing education without forcing your morals and values onto your children.

Carlos is a 15-year-old who was found out to be drinking at a party the previous night. His mom is really worried about him consuming alcohol at such a young age, particularly because there is a family history of alcoholism: 

“Carlos, I know it’s tough to turn down something that you see other people doing. I don’t expect you to be perfect. I also feel worried, given our family’s struggle with alcohol, that you are at greater risk of developing a problem if you’re already drinking now.”

Individualism

Individualism reminds us that teens are their own unique individuals and not a replication of you from when you were young. What worked for you may not work for them, and they will likely go through experiences that you may not be familiar with. Each individual has their own needs and strengths and along with that comes the need to make their own choices.

Sophie is 16, and is dating for the first time. Her mom had a very strict upbringing, wasn’t allowed to date until she was 18, and is very anxious about dating. She is concerned that she may see Sophie being assaulted, acquiring a sexually transmitted infection, or getting pregnant. She has tried to foster a more open dialogue about sexuality, but is still worried. 

“Sophie, I’m struggling with this because I was raised with such a strong message around abstinence-only, and it’s hard for me to shake those values. I see what a bright, confident young woman you are, and how respectful you and _____ are with each other. We’ve had so many conversations about how to advocate for your own safety and pleasure, and you have a much different world view and more skills than I had at your age.”

Autonomy

Autonomy gives teens the ability to self-govern and make their own choices to the best of their abilities, based on education, beliefs, and priorities, providing them with opportunities to problem-solve and think abstractly. This may feel difficult if we believe that we know what is best for our kids, but although it is a parent’s role to educate and make suggestions regarding health behaviours, autonomy and self-governence are ultimately the teenager’s responsibilities. One active approach a parent can take is asking their teen to make a list of pros and cons of a particular choice. Developing the skills of shared decision-making and reciprocal learning before your child is exposed to high risk activities helps prevent high risk behaviours and creates a strong bond between parent and child.

Sophie’s mom provides her with some good quality, teen-friendly resources on healthy sexuality and asks her to write down some pros and cons of engaging in more physically intimate activities. She suggests looking at information about ways to reduce the risk of some of harmful consequences of different forms of sex, and make a ranked list of best options. She offers to review the list with her.

Incrementalism

Incrementalism is the notion that any positive change demonstrated by your teenager should be reinforced, while acknowledging that mistakes happen. When the inevitable balls get dropped, we can express empathy, acknowledge humanity, and reflect on what happened and why.

Devon is learning to ride their bicycle. They have demonstrated confidence on the road, and an ability to follow the rules appropriately and safely. Their dad has given them permission to ride their bike to school. One day, Devon’s dad is home early, and observes Devon riding through a stop sign as they turn onto their street; there are no cars around. 

“Devon, it’s been so much fun watching you enjoy riding your bike. I saw you look for cars when you went through that stop sign, and it was clear to me that you were being careful. Can you tell me why you didn’t actually stop like you were supposed to?  What made you feel like that was okay?”

Accountability

Accountability without termination may be the cornerstone of all the principles of harm reduction. It is the act of never giving up on your child - no matter how many mistakes they make along the way, you don’t hold grudges, you don’t cut them off completely, and you always treat them with respect and concern. You still hold them accountable, helping them to understand the consequences of their actions. An abundance of research shows that a firm and loving approach to parenting, which is embodied by this principle, bolsters a child’s confidence and reduces the likelihood of higher risk behaviours in adolescents.   

Sebastian is trying to get better marks at school and has been working hard to do so. He had an important test at school, but the night before he and his buddy went skating instead. The test was harder than he expected, and he didn’t do very well. He feels crummy and was bummed when he told his mom about it.

“Sebastian, there will always be tough choices to make. You’re disappointed about this mark, and you know you would have done better if you had chosen to study more. You’ve been working so hard; it’s disappointing for you to do poorly this time. How can I help you to achieve the success you’re looking for?”

healthy risk-taking
© Unsplash / Timon Studler

Paving the Way for Healthy Risk-Taking

Parents can prepare kids to navigate through this tricky period long before adolescence develops, by seeking opportunities for their children to explore risk-taking behaviours in a safe environment. Allowing children to participate in consensual rough play, or to independently explore the jungle gym at the park prepares them to assess risk, make decisions, and read social cues. One study assessing risky play and children’s safety found that a child deprived of risk opportunities is subject to lack of independence, diminished learning, perception, and judgement skills. That same child is at an increased risk of obesity and mental health concerns. Risk-taking allows children to test their limits, and to avoid or make changes to the dangerous environments and activities to which they expose themselves. Giving younger kids opportunities to take calculated risks and problem-solve while the consequences are less severe will help them develop the skills to go out into the world, even if their decisions aren’t always what you’d like to see. 

Healthy risk-taking activities

The following activities are simple age-appropriate ways to give kids a chance to explore risk-taking:

  • Let kids to use tools to build projects such as bird houses or tree forts.
  • Teach them to them build fires and light candles.
  • Allow them to go to the park on their own or to the mall with friends. 
  • Encourage (or at least tolerate) consensual rough play, wrestling, play-fighting, using sticks as swords, etc.
  • Give them opportunities to explore unknown areas on their own, such as a walking trail, or nature conservatory.
  • Have kids try out new activities, such as bouldering (rock climbing without ropes and harnesses). 

Before the above activities are experienced, have an open discussion with your kids about strategies of responding to unexpected challenges, and provide progressively less supervision. Most importantly, let them know that you trust their judgments. The perception of having parental trust and support encourages healthy decision making and deters unhealthy risk taking. 

When Rachel was almost 7, we went to Disneyworld. We visited Tom Sawyer's Island, a raft-only access play area for kids. I decided it was safe enough for her to explore a bit on her own, which thrilled her. She knew my cell number by heart, and we agreed that if she got scared, she could ask someone to call me (we have always suggested approaching a woman with kids if she needs help). Which is exactly what she did: I came around a corner to see her asking another mom if she could use her phone. So empowering for her! Rather than teaching her to fear strangers, or not trust her gut or her voice, she learned to feel confident speaking up, and to advocate for her own comfort and needs.

Risk-seeking behaviours are an important part of adolescent development. It allows kids the opportunity to develop independence, improve reasoning skills, and assess consequences. Harm reduction principles aim to reduce risky behaviours and the negative outcomes associated with them. These principles emphasize shared decision-making and highlight the importance of empathy, in the hopes of fostering healthy relationships and communication between parents and their adolescents. 

You may also enjoy: Saying No to Kids Can Actually Make Them HappierSimplicity Parenting in a World that Asks Too Much, and The Emotional Roots of Anxiety in Children.