Adolescent Risk Taking

Adolescence is a time of rapid brain growth with hormonal changes that encourage risk taking. As pediatricians, we can encourage healthy risk taking that will allow adolescents to explore adult roles and responsibilities, while encouraging creativity and family bonding. Unhealthy risk taking should obviously be discouraged.


Adolescents have been known to be risk takers at least since Socrates and Shakespeare first described their emotional and intellectual immaturity. Research has now demonstrated the reasons why adolescents engage in risky behavior. Every lobe of the adolescent brain is immature, especially the frontal lobe (prefrontal cortex), which acts as the CEO of the brain and is involved in all the executive functions: problem solving, planning, strategizing, and evaluation. 
The frontal lobe serves as the inhibiting influence of the brain, helping prevent the individual from copying risky behaviors. The emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, is also immature and poorly connected to the frontal lobe. This means that adolescents often base their decision on an emotional response that is not attenuated or affected by the influence of the frontal lobe. Dopamine, the hormone that produces the sensation of pleasure and excitement, is found in higher levels in the adolescent brain, but requires much more stimulation to be released. Adolescents therefore require more excitement and stimulation to achieve the same levels of pleasure and happiness as adults or younger children. 
Much of the healthy/positive “risk taking” has been removed from contemporary society. In the past, adolescents might have driven the tractor on the family farm or worked in the fields or machine shops, etc. Teens today feel the need to search for other novel experiences. Healthy risk taking should be encouraged. Healthy risk taking encourages creativity and problem solving. Healthy risk taking allows the teen to:
 – Explore adult roles and assume adult responsibilities. 
 – Experience adult rewards and adult consequences.  
 – Develop decision-making skills. 
 – Try new sports and hobbies at a time when the brain is primed to learn. 
Healthy risk taking can actually bond the teen closer to his or her family. Healthy risk taking allows the adolescent to experience the adrenaline/dopamine surge. Unhealthy risk taking should be discouraged. Unfortunately, the unhealthy risk taking in which the adolescent often engages has long-term negative effects on the physical, emotional, and financial health of the adolescent and society.


  • The nuclear family is the most important unit of a stable society and, as such, deserves support. 
  • Adolescents need parental (mother and father) support and supervision to successfully navigate the teen years. 
  • Parents need encouragement to counter societal trends that work to separate adolescents from their families. 
  • Adolescents do have the capacity to say “no.”


The risk-taking/reward centers of the brain involve dopamine pathways in the limbic area, which is poorly connected to the immature frontal lobe. This creates an environment for poor decision making and increased risk taking. People can be divided into low-risk takers and high-risk takers, possibly due to rearing or genetic influence.

Low-risk takers can become high-risk takers when drugs such as alcohol increase the levels of dopamine. Negative and/or high-risk behaviors of teens are all interconnected. Early sexual experience, for example, is associated with other behaviors that endanger health: alcohol, marijuana/other drugs, smoking, and violent behavior.

Similarly, adolescents who avoid one risk-taking behavior are often protected from other negative experiences.



This conversation depends on the maturity of the child but usually happens as the child enters the teen years.

This conversation involves the growing adolescent.

Ask the child: Did you know there is something very special happening in your brain at this time in your life?

Your brain is specially formed right now to learn new things. The adolescent years are the perfect time to try new activities like sports, hobbies, playing musical instruments, and creating art. After your teen years have passed, it is more difficult to learn something new. For example, it’s much harder for me to learn how to pronounce certain sounds in the Spanish language because I didn’t learn them when I was young. 
Your brain often seeks excitement and stimulation from new experiences. These years are your time to find the safest, most exciting, and stimulating activities to help your brain grow and develop properly.

What new activities would you like to try?

What would make the activity exciting or interesting? What would be frightening or dangerous about the activity? Is this an activity that would help you and your brain grow properly? Is this activity a possibility for you? Have you talked with your parents about this?

Ask the teen what his or her goals are and incorporate those goals into the Life Map discussion. Many teens have never been shown how to break down a long-term goal into smaller, more easily accomplished tasks. You can help the teen describe steps along the pathway to the goal. 
For example, if the teen would like to be a personal trainer, follow up with these questions.

So, you would like to be a personal trainer? Have you ever spent time in a gym? Have you ever helped a friend with an exercise program? What do you think you need to do to become a personal trainer? Will you need special schooling? Will you need to know how to keep records of sales and to pay taxes? How can you be learning some of those skills right now? 

Help the teen develop specific, concrete plans to obtain the goal.

Now, imagine your life is like a highway. All the highway signs are pointing to beautician school. As you walk the highway, you want to make sure you follow the correct signs so that you arrive at the correct destination. As you are walking, you see “Detour” signs that look very attractive. What might be some detours that would take you away from your life highway? (Allow the teen to develop some of these ideas.)
  • Friends (bad influence, cutting classes) 
  • Tobacco/marijuana 
  • Alcohol/other drugs 
  • Sex/sexually transmitted infections 
  • Not completing high school 
Some of these detours might be quite short and you can quickly get back on the highway, like a rest stop. Some of the detours are long and winding and you may never be able to find your way back to your life’s planned highway.
From your list, what detour signs would be the most attractive and appealingto you? Have you thought of ways you can avoid the detours? What plans have you made to avoid the detours and stay on your planned highway so you reach your destination safely?

Help the child answer these questions honestly and encourage them to share their answers with their parents if they feel comfortable.


1. American College of Pediatricians position statement, “The Teenage Brain: Under Construction,”
2. American College of Pediatricians position statement, “The Roles, Responsibilities and Rights of Parents,”
3. American College of Pediatricians patient handout, “Parenting Your 
Teen,” []