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As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you might find yourself worrying about all the risky behaviors in which your child might engage and whether you have any influence on the choices that your child makes. Rest assured, healthy risk taking is normal, and there are many ways you can increase the likelihood that your child will engage in healthy risk taking and avoid unhealthy risk taking. Let’s explore what we mean by healthy and unhealthy risk taking, why children take risks, and what you as a parent or someone in a parenting role can do to support your child.
What Is Risk Taking, and Is Risk Taking Normal?
Risk taking is a normal part of child development.1 Children are more likely than adults to take risks because different parts of their brain are maturing at different times. The part of the brain in charge of self-regulation and thinking through consequences matures later than the part of the brain that is impulsive and reactive.2 So, it is natural for children to engage in behaviors that result in an adult saying, “What were you thinking?” Risk taking is about a child finding out who they are and exploring the boundaries that exist. Risk taking is not about a child being rebellious. Risk taking is an essential part of identity development.
What Can I Do to Support Healthy Risk Taking?
Healthy risk taking can build confidence and help teach natural consequences. Unfortunately, without guidance, children and teens can take risks that result in serious and long-term consequences. Examples of these risks include behaviors like substance use, speeding, unprotected sex, and texting while driving. There are several ways you can support healthy risk taking in your child.
Provide Healthy Options and Alternatives
Providing children and teens with healthy options for risk taking offers the thrill that they are seeking with minimal negative consequences.2 Healthy risk taking can reduce the likelihood of unhealthy risk taking.
Examples of healthy risk taking for young children include:
- Exploring at a playground
- Trying new activities or new foods
- Playing pretend together and letting them be the leader and teach you
Examples of healthy risk taking for children and teens include:
- Riding roller coasters and thrill rides or indoor rock climbing
- Running for office at school or trying out for a team or a play
- Trying new activities as a family or with a group
- Meeting new people, joining a club, or volunteering
- Engaging in activities that create excitement without the potential for unhealthy consequences
Model and Label Positive Behavior
Your behavior influences your child. Discuss with your child the positive behaviors you choose and why (Did you notice I stopped and looked both ways before we crossed the street? I did that to make sure it was safe for us to cross.”). If you take a risk that you do not want your child to take, acknowledge it (“I realize that I just drove in an aggressive manner. It was risky and I put us in harm’s way.”). Apologize for the decision and talk with your child about why it was risky, why you regret doing it, and why you will make a different choice next time. Modeling and labeling your actions is important at every age, even for young children.
Talk With Your Child About Risk Taking and Healthy Decision Making
Have ongoing conversations with your child about risks, healthy and unhealthy risk taking, and the potential consequences. Make sure the conversation is a two-way dialogue and not a lecture.
- Notice when your young child is engaging in a healthy or unhealthy risk and engage them in a conversation to prompt their thinking, and encourage or redirect them when needed.
- “Do you remember us talking about always wearing a helmet when you ride your bike? A helmet is important to protect you in case you fall. Please go get your helmet, and I will help you put it on before you ride your bike.”
- “I noticed you looking at the slide at this new playground. Would you like to go down the slide? Can you go down the slide by yourself? I’ll be here to catch you at the bottom if you need help.”
- “That merry-go-round is going too fast right now. You will be able to play on the merry-go-round when you are older.” Redirect their focus to a more age-appropriate option. “Have you tried the swing? Can you run really fast to the swing and I’ll meet you there?”
- Engage your child in a conversation and hear their point of view.
- “In the movie we just watched, what did you think of the decisions the main character made?”
- “When your friends ask you to do something you are not comfortable doing, how do you handle it?”
- “I am struggling to understand the decision you made. Can you help me get a better sense of what went into your decision?”
Develop Deep Social Support Systems
Research suggests that the wider the range of social support available to a child (parents, family, friends), the less likely the child is to engage in unhealthy risk-taking behaviors.3 Involve your child in your community and support healthy relationships between your child and the social support around you. Social support systems can include
- faith communities,
- after-school activities,
- sports leagues, etc.
Grow Family Connectedness to Reduce Risk Taking
When children feel connected to their families, the likelihood of making poor choices and taking unhealthy risks diminishes.4 Family connectedness means feeling a part of the family.
You can create this by
- being responsive to your child’s needs,
- modeling listening while interacting with your child,
- sharing about their day over a meal,
- involving your child in decision making, and
- setting rules and expectations.
Involve your child in family decisions and rule setting. This might sound like:
- “What are some ideas you have about what we should do today?”
- “I have some thoughts about curfew times, but I want to hear your thoughts before making a decision.”
- “Let’s create this chore list together.”
Monitor Your Child and Stay Involved With Them
Parent monitoring and involvement has a positive influence on healthy risk taking.5
For young children, interactions with you are important for increasing their sense of security and for learning about themselves and their emotions. Play with them, watch them, hold them, and express love up close. Children learn by interacting with you.
Know where your child is. Check if they are where they say they will be. It can be as simple as a phone call or text to your child – “Hi honey, just checking to see how things are going,” or a phone call or text to the parents of the friend they are with – “Hi, just checking to see how my child is doing at your house.” Stay involved in their lives, know their friends, and know their friends’ parents. Work hard to develop trust in your relationship and look for opportunities to show that you trust your child. Their perception of parental trust acts as a deterrent to unhealthy risk taking.6
Risk taking is a normal part of development, and risk-taking behavior increases from childhood into adolescence before it decreases in adulthood. This change in risk-taking behavior correlates with changes in the brain where the thinking and self-regulating parts of the brain must catch up with the impulsive and emotional parts of the brain. During this time, you have considerable influence over whether your child chooses to engage in healthy or unhealthy risk taking. Several strategies such as providing healthy options, modeling positive behavior, talking with your child, developing a social support system, maintaining a sense of family connectedness, monitoring, and staying involved can help support healthy risk taking in your child.
 Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78-106.
 Burnett, S., & Blakemore, S. (2010). Teenagers programmed to take risks. Science Daily.
 Abbott-Chapman, J., Denholm, C., & Wyld, C. (2008). Social support as a factor inhibiting teenage risk-taking: Views of students, parents and professionals. Journal of Youth Studies, 11(6), 611-627.
 Markham, C. M., Tortolero, S. R., Escobar‐Chaves, S. L., Parcel, G. S., Harrist, R., & Addy, R. C. (2003). Family connectedness and sexual risk‐taking among urban youth attending alternative high schools. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 35(4), 174-179.
 Huebner, A. J., & Howell, L. W. (2003). Examining the relationship between adolescent sexual risk-taking and perceptions of monitoring, communication, and parenting styles. Journal of Adolescent Health, 33(2), 71-78.
 Borawski, E. A., Ievers-Landis, C. E., Lovegreen, L. D., & Trapl, E. S. (2003). Parental monitoring, negotiated unsupervised time, and parental trust: The role of perceived parenting practices in adolescent health risk behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 33(2), 60-70.
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Healthy Risk Taking. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.