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Teen Risk-Taking: tips for parents and caregivers

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​​Taking a risk mean doing something that could be dangerous or cause harm. Teens face many new risks as part of growing up. Choices about drugs and alcohol, driving, sex, and social media can be life-changing.

You can help your teen practise taking smart risks and making smart decisions.

Why teens take risks

Research shows the brain is still developing until your mid-20s. The pleasure centre of a teen brain develops before the judgment centre. That’s why teens often:

  • don’t see the risk in things they do
  • don’t think about bad things that could happen
  • make decisions based on how they feel instead of what they know

Risk-taking is important for your teen's development. You can let them try new things while helping them to understand how to stay safe.

Alcohol, cannabis and other drugs

In Canada, alcohol is the substance that is most used by teens in Grades 7 to 12. About 2 out of 5 of these teens say they've used alcohol in the past 12 months.

  • Cannabis (marijuana, pot, weed) is the second most used substance in Canada after alcohol. Youth in Canada are some of the top users in the world.

Using alcohol, cannabis and other drugs can lead to higher risks because they affect your teen's:

  • coordination
  • reaction time
  • memory
  • self-control
  • ability to make safe choices

Using alcohol, cannabis and other drugs can put your teen at higher risk of:

  • injury
  • death
  • violence
  • suicide
  • unplanned and unprotected sex

Risks can be higher if your teen is younger when they start to use or if they use often. For example, because cannabis may change how your teen's brain develops, it can affect their learning, memory, and mental health for the rest of their life.

It's never too early to talk with your teen about the risks of using substances. These conversations can help you create a supportive relationship. If you suspect your teen might be using substances, respond and learn why. Then you and your teen can come up with strategies to lower their risk and help them use less. You can also reach out to a healthcare provider if you're concerned about your teen's substance use.

Driving

Taking on new responsibilities like driving will help a teen mature.

You can lower some risks by making sure that your teen gets safety training when learning to drive. And remember that you are your teen's role model. Show them how you drive safely by limiting distractions and always wearing your seatbelt. And never drive while using alcohol or drugs. Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death for young people in Canada, so it's important to talk with your teen about safe driving decisions.

Sex and relationships

Exploring their own gender and sexuality can affect how teens feel about themselves. Teens face many big decisions about sex and relationships. These decisions come with risks around pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Teens also need to understand consent: what it is and how to ask for and give ongoing consent.

More than half of reported STIs in Alberta are in people between the ages of 15 and 24. Talk with your teen about sexual health. Be an "askable adult" and talk to your teen about making safer decisions around sex. Tell them you can answer any questions they have and connect them to sexual health services in your community. 

Internet and social media

Teens use technology in many ways, such as texting, gaming, social networking, and online chatting. But they may not know about the risks.

For example, pictures and messages your teen thinks are private can be shared. This can harm their self-image, mental health, and relationships.

Talk to your teen about cyberbullying and sexting (sharing sexual pictures, messages, or videos by smartphone). Tell them they can talk to you or another adult they trust if something they see or receive upsets them.

Guiding your teen to smarter risk-taking

Remember that even though it may not seem like it, teens need your support and guidance. Here are ways you can guide your teen as they develop: 


Teens need to…Parents can…
Push limitsSet limits. Talk about rules and let teens have more freedom so they can show more responsibility.
Make mistakesExpect mistakes. Think of them as a way to learn. When rules are broken, have consequences.
Seek thrills and take risksGive your teens a chance to try new things and take smart, but not dangerous, risks.
Develop an identityLet teens take on responsibilities. It builds confidence and shows that you trust them.

Talking to your teen about risk-taking

Talking to your teen often about everyday things can help you have open communication. Remember that every talk doesn’t have to be a “big talk”.

Here are some more tips to help you talk to your teen:

  • Don’t lecture. Ask your teen what they think.
  • Share your values, expectations, and concerns.
  • Use news stories, video games, movies, and shows to start talking about hard topics like alcohol, drugs, and sex. Compare the risk-taking in these stories with what might happen in real life.
  • Talk about the pros and cons of what your teen wants to do. Include choices so your teen can practise making decisions.
  • Look for ways to make the activity safer. Would training or safety equipment help? A different time or place?
  • Ask your teen why this activity is important. Is there something else they could do that's not as dangerous?
  • Have some give and take. If you must say "no," tell your teen why.

Current as of: March 24, 2022

Author: Sexual and Reproductive Health, Alberta Health Services