What is risk taking?
Trying new things and testing the boundaries occurs across all developmental stages from birth to old age. It’s defined as risk taking when it involves engaging in activities that have the potential to result in harm to oneself or others. Young people however, may not understand the potential for negative outcomes from their behaviour, particularly if it seems exciting or likely to improve the way their friends see them. Despite having plenty of information available about what is safe or unsafe, this lack of insight means young people may still engage in a high level of risk taking.
This topic aims to help parents and carers understand the issue of risk taking by young people and to provide some guidance on how to help keep young people safe.
What types of risk taking do young people engage in?
There are a wide range of behaviours that young people may engage in but the main types of risk taking are:
Drug and alcohol use…
The use of tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceutical or illicit substances are one of the most common types of risk taking that young people engage in. Illicit drugs can contain harmful impurities and binge drinking has the potential to cause irreparable harm. Sustained drug and alcohol use also has the potential to damage the development of young people’s brains and bodies. Despite alcohol and tobacco being legal from the age of 18, many young people begin their use before this age. In 2013, a national survey revealed some good news in that 72% of young Australians aged between 12 and 17 years were abstaining from alcohol. It also showed that the age at which young people are first taking up tobacco smoking has risen from 14.2 to almost 16 years, but some young people start around the age of 12 or 13. The number of young people starting to use these substances increases and reaches a peak some time around the late teen years.
Unsafe sexual activity
Young people usually begin exploring intimate relationships during their teens. Sexual activity under the age of consent is not legal and unsafe sex can result in pregnancy or the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Research on Australian high school students has shown that about a third of year 10 students are sexually active and this proportion increases to more than half for year 12 students. Of concern is that among the same group of students, more than two-fifths of those who were sexually active reported inconsistent condom usage while around a quarter were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their most recent sexual encounter.
Risky online activity
The internet provides access to a wide range of information and the chance to connect with others through social media, gaming platforms and smart phones. While it provides young people with many benefits, there are also numerous risks. Exposure to distressing images and content, online bullying or harassment from either known or unknown people, and cyber stalking or grooming (by paedophiles) are some examples of these risks.
Illegal or hazardous activities
For some young people, developing their identity involves challenging authority by engaging in various types of illegal or dangerous activities. Some may result in physical harm such as vandalism, dangerous driving or doing things for an excitement rush like playing in traffic or jumping from heights, etc. Young people between the ages of 15 to 19 are more likely to engage in dangerous activities although it’s a fact that young people aged between 10 to 24 years account for almost half of all illegal offenses committed in Australia.
Young people like to belong to a group (known as a peer group) and those who feel left out of the mainstream may end up joining a gang or just hanging out with an antisocial group of peers. At times, gangs engage in illegal activity and substance use, and there is strong pressure on members to conform and go along with the group. Gang members may affiliate with people from similar geographical, cultural, ethnic or religious identities.
What are the implications of risk taking for young people?
There is a range of health, legal and social consequences from engaging in risky behaviour.
Drug and alcohol use, whether illegal or legal, can cause a variety of health problems depending on the particular substance. Intoxicating substances can also lead to impaired judgement and coordination resulting in physical harm from accidents or violence.  The Drugs and Alcohol – The Facts Topic offers more information and ideas for parents and carers on how to manage this concern.
Young people can get a criminal conviction, fine or imprisonment for the possession of illicit substances. Harsher penalties apply if they are found guilty of supplying it to others. If young people under the age of 18 years send explicit images of themselves or others over the internet or by phone (sexting), they may be charged with child pornography offences. Police are also implementing tougher penalties for people involved with gangs.
If a young person is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, behaving in an antisocial way may also damage their reputation. This could restrict their future life opportunities such as employment especially if an unsuitable image is posted online via social networking. The Sexting and it’s Consequences topic has more information to assist parents and carers to manage concerns about sexting.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
Why do young people take risks?
Not all young people choose to engage in risky behaviour as a way of testing boundaries. When they do, it may be due to peer pressure, boredom or rebellion.
- Peer pressure: Peer pressure can either be direct or indirect. Sometimes a young person’s friends will tell them to do something, or they may feel they should be doing something because the rest of the group is doing it.
- Glamorisation of risk taking behaviours in the media: Movies and television display a range of risky behaviours by characters but fail to show negative consequences. Young people may believe friends will see and admire them more if they take similar actions.
- Mental health/self-esteem issues: Young people with low self-esteem are less likely to feel they have the right to assert themselves and may fail to say “no” to peers when they really need to. Furthermore, young people with mental health issues may engage in risky behaviour such as substance use to relieve feelings of distress if they do not have safer alternatives.
- Absent/inadequate role models: Parents and carers are vitally important for showing young people safer ways of being admired or feeling challenged. If parents and carers are engaging in risky behaviours themselves, young people may copy them.
- Boredom and excitement: Young people may seek to relieve their boredom by seeking excitement through risky outlets, such as drugs, alcohol or unsafe sexual activity.
- Rebelling against authority: Growing up is a time when young people seek to define who they are and part of this includes going against the established order of things. Since community laws and the rules of their school and home restrict a number of risky behaviours, young people may do these things to feel independent.
- ‘It won’t happen to me’ optimism: Young people are naturally inclined to think that negative outcomes will only happen to others and not themselves. This leads them to a feeling of being indestructible and engaging in behaviours they might not otherwise risk if they believed it could result in a negative outcome.
How can parents and carers help young people avoid taking risks?
Parents and carers have a number of options available to them to actively promote the avoidance of harmful risk taking.
Here are some ideas: 
- Having good communication is the best way to know what young people are doing when they’re not at home. This way, you’ll know if what they do is likely to result in some type of harm.
- Find safer alternatives to alleviate boredom and to give them a feeling of excitement. Engaging in physical activity such as joining a sports team is one option, as are more creative outlets such as performing arts.
- Be a good role model and avoid the things you don’t want your young person to do yourself, and show them how to have a good time while still keeping safe. Young people often emulate the behaviours of their parents/carers, whether positive or negative.
- Talk about peer pressure – Young people cannot avoid peer pressure in one form or another. The only thing they can do about it, is to handle it well. Teach young people about the importance of asserting themselves and to be aware of how peer group pressure operates. Check out the Coping with Peer Pressure topic for more information.
- Provide reliable information – Young people need to be informed about the kinds of risks they may encounter. This means providing them with reliable and balanced information about topics such as sex, drugs, antisocial behaviour and online safety. Telling them to avoid things like drugs or sex won’t keep them safe if they don’t know why these things can be risky. Information pitched at teenagers can also be found on our site under the Coping with Peer Pressure topic as linked above.
- Have boundaries that reduce the opportunities for young people to engage in risky behaviours. Rules such as not bringing drugs into the house, not consuming alcohol under the age of 18 and not allowing dates to sleep over in the same room are some examples.
- Encouraging them to succeed in, and participate at, school is linked to reducing risk taking behaviours and in combination with pursuing safer alternatives for enjoying themselves, will reduce the chances of them making risky choices.
- Get support when needed – information about something that might be risky or talking about something they should not have done and want help to avoid in the future is available through talking to one of our counsellors.
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.