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Healthy Families
Why teens take risk

Why teens take risk

So you've caught your 14-year-old daughter sneaking out at night to meet friends, or you've smelled smoke on your teenage son's clothes. What now?

Most teens take risks. Most experiment. It's an uncomfortable fact of life—one many parents don't like to face. It's easier to believe that our kids are making smart choices and resisting peer pressure at every turn. Yet know that they are still teens, as you once were, merely kids who are adults in the making. It's their job to challenge, push and explore. That's how they get from here to there.

According to well-known child psychologist Dr. Brian Mesinger—who has worked with teens in Northern Colorado for years through The Youth Clinic—only about 20 to 30 percent of kids don't try smoking cigarettes, drinking or pot in high school. He says that by the end of senior year, approximately 90% of teens in Northern Colorado have tried drinking, and 40% to 50% have binged—drinking five or more drinks within two hours. While marijuana use isn't as high, it is something that's fairly prevalent in high schools in our region. In 2010, 40 students were expelled because of drug-related incidents, accounting for 57 percent of all expulsions in the Poudre School District.

Some kids are more likely to try substances than others—and surprise!—it's not always because they weren't raised right. It often has to do more with core personality and friends than it does with parents. Sometimes, there's an underlying issue that's driving them to self-medicate, like depression or other emotional challenges.

It's often hard to tell if a teen is experimenting—kids often tell us what they think we want to hear rather than the truth. "I want to write a book titled, Your Kids Lie to You Every Day. When kids are little they lie about brushing their teeth or cheating in a game. How you respond shapes their lies at 7, 10 and 15," says Mesinger.

Hard-Wired for Risk

Some kids are hard-wired to take risks. If your teen was shockingly daring as a young child and rarely thought of consequences, guess what? He'll be that way as a teen. "The same is true for the other end of the spectrum—kids who were really shy and fearful," adds Mesinger.

Almost all teens are risk takers to some degree. Mesinger believes that teenagers measure reward, not risk, meaning they tend to concentrate on instant fun, rather than after-effects. "Risk taking does have its benefits as a teen. It can lead to fun, mastery, and high social standing—especially for boys," he says.

Recent studies have identified a risk-taking personality: "These are the people who BASE jump off buildings. It's not a large part of the population, but it's a definite group that tends to be hyperactive and impulsive." Most teens fall somewhere in the middle of the risk-taking continuum.

If you've got a child who tends to welcome risks, don't ignore it and hope he will change. "Instead, be aware and discuss it, and not with a critical tone. Approach it from a place of wanting to understand that part of him," says Mesinger. Possibly, you'll help him recognize those times when he needs to pause to think before acting.

Friends are King

Along with personality, your teen's friends play a big role in determining if she will experiment with substances, take dangerous risks or make poor choices.

"The first thing I ask parents is, 'Who are their friends?' Kids pick a group where they feel competent and welcome. All kids do not have all options, when it comes to friends. We may want our kids to hang out with the smart, studious kids, but if they don't feel that's who they are inside themselves, they won't. Which friend group your teens choose really depends on how they define themselves—as bright, funny, cool, artsy, etc.," says Mesinger.

Some kids get in a group and then realize that they don't like it. But then they have to change, and that's hard for kids. It's rare, but some kids are able to have friends from several different groups. "They don't need one group to define them. They can have sport friends, band friends or pseudo-gangster friends. That's admirable," adds Mesinger.

Most kids find a core group of friends that they feel most comfortable around. If these friends are experimenting, there's a good chance they will, too.

Yet as parents, you can't rightly pick your teen's friends. If you even hint that a certain friend isn't good for him, he may froth at the mouth in defense. When teens pick one group of friends and don't have a lot of outside activities, that's when you might worry. It could mean they have defined themselves by that group, or as a certain person—dreadlock dope smoker, all-state basketball player, skater—and will be loyal, no matter what. "If he's loyal to the drug dealers and burnouts, he's in trouble," adds Mesinger, who suggests challenging his preconception of other kids. "Ask him why he can't hang out with other kids. If he says they are all dorks or losers ask more. What exactly makes them losers? So you just want to hang out with people who make you feel comfortable? What's the downside to that? You'll hear how he defines himself and gain insight in why he's taking risks."

If he seems stuck on one group, you still have options. Encourage reconnection with old friends outside the group, or family friends. Require that he join a new club or sport. This might broaden his circle, or at least his view of other kids. Finally, know that as time passes he'll most likely outgrow some of his diehard loyalty, self-definition, and hence, his urge to give in to the group's peer pressure.

Mesinger advises keeping friends close. "I wouldn't ban a kid from my house, I'd invite him over. It's like the old saying, 'keep your friends close and your enemies' closer.' You could even strike up a conversation—say, 'Hey, we know you two are doing such-and-such together and we know how you influence each other. You can be a force of good for each other, or a force of bad. We'd like you to keep each other out of trouble." He also advises lots of family outings, dinners and time together—strong family ties help keep kids out of trouble or temper those who desire risks.

Watch, Talk, Consequence

If you find out your teen is sneaking out to smoke pot or stealing beers out of the fridge for a backyard campout, your immediate urge is probably to freak out or explode. That's because you are shocked. Your teen, who you thought was headed in the right direction, has chosen a downward path. How could this be possible? Here's your parental challenge: Bite your tongue. Say you will talk in the morning. Go back to bed.

"If you talk about it when you are all jacked up, it won't be helpful or go anywhere good. Sit down at breakfast and say, 'We can do this two ways. We can ask 50 questions or you can tell us what's going on," advises Mesinger. If we get mad or loud we take the focus off of them and put it on ourselves. It lets them off the hook. "Instead, say, 'I want to understand what's going on here. What are you getting from this behavior?' then get quiet," he adds.

Of course, risky, unacceptable behavior demands consequences and oversight. Mesinger doesn't think it matters what the consequence is, but it could match the crime. If he drove home drunk, no car. If she left school and went out to lunch and skipped her next class, bag lunches and no going out. Aim for consequence, not punishment. "If the goal is to stop the behavior it probably won't work. If the goal is to teach there's a consequence for poor choices, then it will," says Mesinger.

Keep a watchful eye. Be more aware and less susceptible to your teens' possible lies. Be open to talking more, and spending more time. Don't fall into the trap of believing she just did it once and she's done, or assuming it was a phase and it has passed.

Mesinger says it's definitely okay to go through your teens' room or check his phone messages if you suspect he's been up to no good. "The idea that this is his life, his freedom, give me a break. He lives in your house. Let him know you will only look when he gives you reason to. Otherwise, you won't," suggests Mesinger. Trust your gut, it's probably right.

If you find yourself in a cycle of continual grounding, work to break it. "Try to elicit from your teen something she is willing to do. What is she willing to commit to, to make this different? What positive action can she take? It has to come from her, not you, to make for real change," says Mesinger.

Most teens get through adolescents just fine, despite some risk taking and experimenting: "About twenty percent of teens will struggle and push hard. If that's happening, it's your job to help guide them, rather than control them. If parents really bring down the hammer and try to stop the behavior by punishing, it only makes things worse," says Mesinger. That's because when kids are in continual lock down they tend to adjust to it and enter the 'I don't care' stage. That's rebellion, and the goal then becomes, 'I'll mess up my life so I can mess up yours, too.' It's hard to move anywhere positive from there.

Finally, be a parental team. "Create the 'Royal We.' Use language that shows unity, as in, 'Mom and I talked and we decided...,'" suggests Mesinger. If you are not united, teens see you as not in control and can easily split you, wreaking havoc in your home. Studies by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University back this up. They've found that when parents don't agree on what to say to their teens about drug use, teens are three times more likely to smoke marijuana and try other drugs when they're older.

"Don't have the illusion that if you do everything right your teens won't do anything wrong. Kids will do what they are going to do. All you can do is encourage and give rewards and have limits and sanctions afterwards. As teens, they are in control of their choices, not us. All we can control is how we respond," concludes Mesinger.

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