Why do young people take risks?

It has nothing to do with being stupid or irrational like many adults may think.   Taking risks and exploring the unknown is actually a key part of growing up.  It is vital to young people broadening their horizons and learning about themselves and their own capabilities.  Without risk, learning and self-discovery will not occur.   

Heathy vs Unhealthy Risks

Healthy risk-taking is a valuable experience. It is one that has the possibility of failure, but is also rewarding and relatively safe. Healthy risks that are good to encourage in young people include sporting activities, artistic & creative abilities or outdoor activities such as rafting or mountain bike riding.  Unhealthy risk-taking behaviour includes driving too fast, unprotected sex, alcohol and drug use or criminal activity.

Factors that influence risk-taking 

Environmental factors

Prior to being in care young people were often in an environment in which the behaviours that were modeled to them were unhealthy.  Once in care, young people tend to associate with other young people in care, who have similar backgrounds and engage in more high-risk behaviors.

Economic factors

A lack of financial means impacts a young person’s access to many healthy risk-taking activities. 

Social factors 

A young person's experiences prior to, and within out-of-home care , often makes a young person feel quite isolated and marginalised. This can make it more difficult to access healthy risk-taking activities available to the general community. 

Mental Health 

Impacts of trauma or other mental health concerns can restrict access to involvement in healthy risk-taking activities within groups. Trauma experiences can also result in the young person being very impulsive and needing higher-risk activities to get the sensation they need.

School Attendance 

Many activities that fulfil the need for risk-taking are offered to young people through schools, which those in out of home care are often disengaged from. 

Consequently, many young people in out of home care will gravitate towards more unhealthy risk-taking behaviours.

The Brain's Role

There are things that are happening in the brain during adolescence that contribute to young people seeking emotional and physical sensations and taking risks.  These developments are:

  • The part of the brain where decisions are made based on rewards and emotion, develops during this time
  • The part of the brain that helps to think critically, exercise self-control and reason are also developing but take a bit longer to get going
  • During adolescence, the brain is most sensitive to dopamine - this is the neurotransmitter that provides pleasure and reward as well as aiding learning and decision making

Because of these changes during adolescence young people may:

  • Seek new sensations and experiences because of an inner motivation to try something new 
  • Have trouble controlling their impulses to take risks or understand the consequences of their actions.  They then will often respond on impulse rather than think practically and consider options or consequences of their decisions.
  • Focus on potential rewards rather than hazards like adults do
  • Learn quickly with reward, therefore if they feel better after using drugs, this behaviour will be reinforced.
  • Push limits
Young people take risks, not because they don’t understand the dangers, but because their view of risk vs reward is very different to adults. 

Young people value reward more than adults so when there is something they want, the reward to gain outweighs the potential risk involved. 

To support this adults in the young person’s life can:

  • Influence the level of unhealthy risk taking by regulating the context in which young people live so they avoid getting in situations where they are more prone to take unhealthy risks
  • Model and promote healthy risk taking by finding opportunities and encouraging them in constructive pursuits like sports or arts. 
  • Guide and discuss risk-taking with young people.  Help them learn how to evaluate risks and anticipate the consequences of their choices as well as equip them to avoid taking risks in situations where they could put themselves or someone else in danger.
Further Resources