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Risk Behavior in Teens: Why it Happens and How Adults Can Help


During the process of growing from a child to adult, adolescents may make choices that could put their health and wellbeing at risk. This article defines and explains high-risk behavior, and provides suggestions on how caring adults can support teens in desistance

What is High-Risk Behavior?

High-risk encompasses behaviors that can result in adverse consequences that outweigh potential gains and could potentially interfere with adolescent development, health, and wellbeing. 

Common adolescent high-risk behaviors include: unprotected sexual activity, substance abuse, cigarette smoking, and preventable injury and violence, including self- harm.

Adolescents involved in delinquency or criminality are at greater risk of health or life-compromising outcomes, like incarceration, unemployability, school failure, and more.

What Contributes to High-Risk Behavior in Teens?

Risk behavior is low in childhood, increases around puberty, peaks in late adolescence and early adulthood, and then decreases in adulthood. 

Why? Because adolescents are still developing self-regulation, logical reasoning, and impulse control. They are biologically hardwired to be socially impressionable – to stray from the family unit – and place more value on social interactions with peers. As a result, teens often use emotion-based reasoning. Rather than weighing the risks of a situation, they instead think about the social consequences of their decisions.

Contributing Factors to Risk Behavior in Adolescents:

Biological:  Teens are still developing their self-regulation and impulse control skills. Teens who have an anti-social personality or affect may be more susceptible to high-risk behavior. Also,

Social:  Teens are impressionable and sensitive to how they are perceived by peers. Antisocial behavior, friends, or social groups can contribute to high-risk behavior. Additionally, teens often engage in emotion-based reasoning; instead of weighing risks, they think about the social consequences of their decisions.

Environmental:    Family dynamics, neighborhood environment, school connectedness, community connectedness, poverty, access, resources, and oppression can contribute to high-risk behavior. 

How Can Adults Help Prevent High Risk Behavior in Teens?

Educate yourself about the issues teens are facing today.

Talk with Your Teen. Find out what they know, what they are doing, and what their friends are doing. Open, non-confrontational, and non-judgmental conversations work best. Check out our blog on adolescent conversation starters for tips on how to foster open conversations through active listening.

Build Your Teen’s Protective Factors. Protective factors are conditions or characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes, or reduce the impact of a risk-factor.

  • Examples of protective factors include: pro-social activities, emotional support, positive community, friends, or family, sleep, nutrition, exercise, and skill development.

Encourage Healthy Risk. Healthy risk is behavior that is safe, socially acceptable, and constructive.

Healthy risk helps teens become more independent and autonomous. It expands their understanding of their personal values, morals, beliefs, and identity. It allows them to practice independent decision making and problem-solving skills.

Examples of Healthy Risk Include:

  • Trying a new sport or food
  • Apologizing for a mistake
  • Reaching out for help
  • Public speaking
  • Asking someone out on a date,
  • Challenging coursework, etc.

How Youth Life Coaches Can Support Teens to Reduce High Risk Behavior

Youth Coaching Institute trains caring adults to become youth life coaches who can support adolescents as they work to reduce high-risk and/or anti-social behavior in their lives.

Coaching to Enhance: Self-Determined Motivation, Empowerment, and Commitment

  • Build awareness. How has the teen contributed to outcomes? Where have they succeeded, and where are their opportunities to grow?
  • Envision what could be. What kind of future does the teen want for themselves? How would their life be different if they got there?
  • Create meaning and purpose. Why does it matter that the teen strives for this desired future?
  • Coaching Outcomes: Perspective shift, increased ownership/accountability, increased hope.

Coaching to Support: Goal Setting, Pursuit, and Achievement

  • Identify strengths and resources. What does the teen do well? How can they leverage their strengths or resources to get closer to their goals?
  • Identify practical goals and plan actions to achieve them. How can they create a path towards their desired goal? What types of intermittent, practical actions can they take to forge that path?
  • Coaching Outcomes: Increased confidence, self-efficacy, and motivation, acquired pro-social people, places, and community.

Want to learn more about navigating high-risk behavior in adolescents? Check out our accredited life coach trainings and educational resources for more information.

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