Managing risk-taking in teen boys

Teen boy skateboarding mid air

At a glance

  • The best way for teen boys to take safe risks is for you to do it with them.
  • One of the biggest ways to take risks is to meet new people.
  • Boys vulnerable to dangerous risk-taking behaviour generally show signs early in their life.
  • Some risk-taking is natural during the teenage years.
  • A parenting approach which is loving but firm supports boys to be safe risk-takers.

Andrew Fuller, a child psychologist from University of Melbourne, says today's ‘Nintendo' generation of teen boys get to save the world every day on the computer. In the real world, they can be forbidden from going down the road alone.

It's a conundrum parents need to be aware of because without the chance to take part in real adventures, things can become a bit dull – teen boys' desire to explore life can get out of hand if they're not given some space to do it safely.

"We have a world that sanitises away risk, so that means risk becomes even more alluring," Andrew says.

"Boys are going to take some risks in some way, and you can either provide them with options to do that with you, or they'll do it separately."

Dangerous risk-taking includes:

  • binge-drinking
  • smoking
  • drug taking
  • aggressive driving
  • aggressive, bullying behaviour.

Andrew says parents need to think about how they can help their boys take risks in ways that allow them to safely have a go at things, particularly when they're younger teenagers. The best way to do this is to take some risks together.

"Families need to be more daring ... it's partly about parents being curious themselves and being prepared to have a go as much as they can," he says.

What you are trying to do is devise things that will help broaden them as people. Andrew Fuller University of Melbourne

"It doesn't have to be that exotic ... parents can give themselves permission to go off and do different stuff – stay at a backpackers' hostel for a night, whatever it might be – under the guise of giving their kids a broader life experience."

It could be volunteering for a homeless refuge or taking part in Clean Up Australia Day, he says.

"One of the biggest risks for many young people is the social risk of meeting new people, actually going around and staying with other families in youth hostels, or mixing with entirely different groups of people.

"What you are trying to do is devise things that will help them to broaden out as people, and have a sense of the world," Andrew says.

It also gives them a sense that they can make a contribution in a positive way, he says.

"A lot of kids these days are provided with a lot of things but are not asked to do much. Kids are very capable but because we don't call upon that competency they then feel they have to prove their own worth and autonomy through taking negative risks."

Risk-taking is natural

Boys are more prone to risk-taking from puberty because the brain chemical dopamine, which is responsible for motivation and pleasure, declines in potency for a while. Teen boys become more lethargic and grumpy, and they start taking more risks because they're actually looking for a lift in dopamine, Andrew says.

Lifting dopamine levels includes giving boys:

  • rewards
  • regular feedback
  • reassurance they're loved
  • clear expectations and boundaries
  • encouragement to do activities with lots of repetitive movement such as handball, volleyball, swimming or drumming.

Serious risk-taking

Associate Professor Susan Towns, head of the Department of Adolescent Medicine at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, says also during adolescence the area of the brain responsible for executive functions is going through immense change, which can play havoc with decision making and organisational skills.

However, Sue says dangerous risk-taking doesn't just happen. There are signs early on that may show a boy is more vulnerable and usually it's a combination of factors including:

  • ADHD and other developmental issues
  • inadequate parenting support
  • personality traits or developing mental health problems such as depression or anxiety
  • school-related issues such as being bullied or peer pressure.

Sue says the best parenting approach to support boys through this time is one that is loving, but firm – high warmth, high structure, high supervision and guidance done in a supportive way.

"It's about creating boundaries," Sue says. "They respond to structure. Certainly during the adolescent years they push the boundaries and it's the parents' job to say what's appropriate and what's not."

Approaches that can encourage rebellious behaviour in boys include laissez-faire parenting where there is a lot of love and nurturing but not enough boundaries or structure, and ‘authoritarian' parenting, which is low on warmth and nurturing but high on strictness and discipline, she says.

"We don't want boys to feel as though they can't chase after their dreams ... but it's a matter of being safe and supported and knowing how to do that."

Wise boundaries to give your teenage son

  • Ask them to tell you what time they will be home.
  • Have an agreement that trust develops if they keep to the rules.
  • Have house rules and household chores.
  • Know how much money your son has.
  • Talk to the school as needed.
  • Know who their friends are.
  • Be introduced to their friends.
  • Talk to other mums and dads about their sons' boundaries and ideas they have on parenting.

If you feel your son's behaviour is putting him in danger, contact your local health professional or contact The Department of Adolescent Medicine at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, which can help you find local support.


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