Risky Teen Behavior
Four-wheeling, surfing, parasailing, roman candle tag, riding BMX bikes off dangerously high ledges: What draws our otherwise sensible teenage boys to ridiculously risky forms of amusement?
Lisa Cole, mother of two from Portland, Ore., wonders the same thing about her 14-year-old son. "He's always been a risk taker, but I've noticed this trait branching out as he enters his teen years," she says. Cole's son is now into snowboarding, skate boarding and rappelling, and like many mothers, Cole wonders what he's going to come up with next.
"I should have known he'd be an extreme sport lover," she says. "Once when he was young, there was a tree out front that he couldn't climb because the lowest branch was too high for him to reach. So what does he do? He leans his bicycle against the tree so he can climb it anyway!"
Why They Do It
Alex Kehaven, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist from New Jersey, believes that such behavior is very normal for teen boys. "Although both genders seek risk in adolescent years, girls take more self-protective roles," he says. "Boys in teen years respond more to rites of passage, needs for power and physical challenges."
Kehaven says that young men naturally respond with extreme behavior, which is further promoted by the media's bombardment of shows promoting "on the edge" behavior. To prove themselves, they often take unnecessary risks. The problem lies with the fact that many teenage boys live their lives under faulty beliefs, operating under the "3 I's" assumption: They believe they are invincible, immortal and infertile.
Daniel Hoover, director of psychology training for the adolescent treatment program at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas, believes that boys are more liable to engage in risky behavior for a number of reasons. "There is research evidence that boys are, on average, more active and more aggressive in their activity, even from birth, than girls," he says. "There is also a demand among male peers to be daring – many boys start into extreme sports and risky behaviors because that is what the other boys are doing; boys who are athletic and physically tough are rewarded by having more friends. Not being tough can be a detriment to acceptance by other male peers."
According to Hoover, this type of behavior is completely normal. Some young men engage in it because of this feeling of being under-stimulated in life, sitting in school, being expected to think and talk rather than move around. "The latter is more their natural tendency," he says. "Some boys are very easily bored and distracted, and risk-taking keeps them interested. It is normal to a certain extent, and most boys are able to do fine, not get hurt too badly and work it out in the end."
When to Be Concerned
Hoover says the signs for concern are fairly obvious. One way a parent can make that judgment is to consider the rest of their son's life and activities. "Normal" versus "not normal" often comes down to how functional they are. Can they engage in their entertainment or sport without getting significantly hurt most of the time? Do they engage in other things besides risk taking? Are they functioning well in other important areas of their life such as school, friends, activity, learning, cooperating and being physically healthy? If so, their risky behavior is probably within the normal range.
"It's less healthy when they are getting hurt, obviously, and can't stop even though they recognize that they're getting hurt, or when it interferes with other normal activities," says Hoover.
Donna Mayerson, a psychologist specializing in children and families, says the best extreme sports athletes moderate their risk by diligent preparation and matching their development of skills with the degree of risk. Parents should be concerned when their child is taking physical risks without adequate preparation and when they are grossly miscalculating the matching of their skill development with the level of risk.
"Risk-seeking coupled with poor judgment is a recipe for disaster, increasing the number and frequency of accidents," she says. "While we want our children to venture out into the world with a willingness to take some risks and stretch themselves, we want them to use caution. Parents should also be concerned with risk-seeking in combination with emotional disorders, such as depression."
Mayerson believes that extreme sports can be an appropriate and healthy activity for kids, as long as they exercise good judgment, weigh the risks and pace themselves. It becomes unhealthy when they use poor judgment and seek danger. The risk is injury to themselves as well as others.
Lessening the Risk
The following sports can help quench a young man's thirst for risk and adventure with a minimal of risk if the correct precautions are taken:
- Poker. Texas Hold 'Em and other games are becoming quite popular among the younger set. Setting up regular poker parties for teens can be a safe way to "risk it all" even when there is no real money involved.
- Snowboarding. The sport of snowboarding is young, energetic and something that can give your teen the excitement he craves along with some very real exercise.
- BMX bike racing. This sport has the added bonus of giving a very good work out. Unlike snowboarding, where you obviously have to be close to a ski resort, BMX racing can be done all over the United States. Safety equipment minimizes the risk, and learning to jump is enough to thrill the most hardcore risk taker!
- Rock climbing. There are many indoor gyms that offer extremely safe and challenging rock climbing walls.
"Any behavior is risky when you put yourself on the line and risk failure," says Mayerson. "There are a myriad of activities that are fun and exciting and pose minimal risks. The key is to find an engaging activity in which your son can stretch himself while managing that risk."