Whether you loved your high school experience, loathed it, or just felt neutral about the whole thing, chances are you probably have some vivid memories of your teenage years. The angst, the confusion, the frustration — and that’s just in terms of the body hair. Plus, everything felt so dramatic for some reason: like your entire social life hinged on whether or not you were invited to (or attended) a certain party. Without lapsing into the script for an unaired episode of My So-Called Life, it’s hard to figure out who your friends are… especially if you aren’t even entirely sure who you are yourself. As teens navigate all of this and try to fit in, they may be faced with peer pressure to participate in some risky behaviors.
So, as parents, it’s helpful to know what the kids are getting up to these days. Newsflash: A lot of it is the same stuff we did. But here’s what to keep in mind about risky behavior, peer pressure, and teens.
What is risky behavior in teens?
Risky behaviors are exactly what they sound like: activities, actions, and/or habits that pose a threat to the person doing them and, potentially, other people as well. And, as it turns out, teenage brains are actually wired to engage in risky behaviors, according to a 2017 study. Fortunately, though, this tendency towards risk decreases over time — after peaking at age 19.
So why are teens drawn to potential danger in the first place? As adults, we make decisions using our prefrontal cortex. But the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in teenagers, so they rely on their amygdala to get the job done instead. Yes, the same amygdala responsible for emotions and stress. And that’s why even the “smart” or “emotionally intelligent” teenagers can still make questionable decisions.
What is peer pressure?
Guess what? The same peer pressure we experienced as adolescents is still around. Only now, the peers can use social media and texting as additional ways to exert their pressure. In case you need a refresher, peer pressure is the influence that other people in a person’s age group or another demographic have on each other. It can be positive, like your teenager’s friends encouraging them to join a choir if they were initially hesitant. It can also be negative, like when peers try to get your teenager to engage in risky behaviors (especially ones they wouldn’t have otherwise).
What are examples of risky behaviors in teens?
While there’s really not an exhaustive list of risky behaviors teens engage in — maybe because we’ve never heard of a bunch of them and feel old — they do typically fall within one of five groups:
- Behavior that may lead to violence or injury: This category includes anything that has the potential to cause bodily or mental harm, like being in a fight, bullying or being bullied, carrying a weapon, self-harm, and considering or attempting suicide.
- Unsafe sexual behavior: The idea of what constitutes “risky” sexual behavior in teens may not be universally agreed-upon, but it’s safe to include things like not using protection during various types of sexual activity, not being tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted infections, or drinking alcohol or using drugs during or before having sex.
- Alcohol, substance, and tobacco use: Teens are underage, so any use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or other substances is risky (and illegal).
- Unsafe driving or riding: Assuming the teen driving has a valid driver’s license, this behavior includes driving while texting or e-mailing, driving after drinking or using drugs, or not wearing a seatbelt. The same is true for those riding in vehicles with a driver who has been drinking or using drugs.
- Poor self-care: Though the behaviors in this category don’t seem as much of an immediate threat to health and safety as the ones previously listed, it does include things like unhealthy eating, not sleeping enough, inadequate physical activity, and excessive social media and screen time — all of which can take a toll on their mental well-being, physical well-being, and self-esteem.
As parents, we can’t follow our kids around until their prefrontal cortex is fully developed. But we can use their teenage risk-taking to their advantage, by directing them towards safe and healthy activities that still involve a degree of physical or social risk, including playing sports, performing onstage, or volunteering in an unknown situation.
One of the best ways to do so — and to gauge if they’re engaging in risky behavior — is to keep the lines of communication open by prioritizing conversation with your teen.