Rebels with a cause? Smart risk taking by teens may be the key to success in adulthood

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 8 2013 6:45 p.m. MST

Small risks — such as learning to drive in the rain at night or asking out a crush — and bigger risks alike can help prepare teens to learn how to make decisions and estimate consequences, said Melissa Kahn, a teen life coach in Los Angeles.

Scott and Annelle Doxey, parents of risk-taking Alex, have long supported their children in taking healthy risks. The six Doxey children — ranging in ages 12 to 28 — grew up with a trampoline, took paper route jobs and built ski jumps on the weekends in Buena Vista, Va.

As they learn to take risks, they also learn to avoid stupid risks, Scott Doxey said. "When kids find enjoyment in and learn the limits of physical risks, they don't have to experiment with scarier risks such as drug abuse or alcohol."

Though the Doxeys never pushed their kids in educational pursuits, most of the kids received scholarships to college and three of the four boys have pursued the medical profession. "They're not afraid to choose to do hard things," Scott Doxey said.

Learning to positively assess risk is a skill that allows teens to shape their identity, said Lynn E. Ponton, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California and author of "The Romance of Risk."

Risk-taking allows teens to begin seeing the gray in decisions rather than always viewing decisions in black and white, Ponton said. "This is really the bulk of life, evaluating things and making a choice, then living with the decision or deciding to modify it."

A parent's role

Ponton recommends speaking with kids about risks. Self-disclosure can open the door for communication, though parents should be cognizant of their relationship role and the developmental age, Ponton wrote in her book, "The Sex Lives of Teenagers."

A non-bragging and nonjudgmental manner is critical, Ponton wrote. Be a good example; you are closely imitated.

"Everyone, even teenagers, has a private life which includes fantasies, secret thoughts and hidden actions," Ponton wrote. "Mentioning to your child that you know of and respect this increases their respect for you."

Physical injury should be the primary consideration when assessing risks, said Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist and adolescent specialist. "We're trying to avoid teens who are jumping off roofs at parties or binge drinking or doing drugs."

Weichman suggests focusing on the "can's." Let them experience the thrill of meeting people and trying something new. Allow them to try out for a dance club or approach new subjects.

"We learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes," Weichman said. "The most successful people are willing to take risks."

Teaching teens that their actions affect others can help them determine which risks are appropriate, said Joseph Shrand, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and medical director of CASTLE — Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered — an intervention unit for at-risk teens. Teens have not fully developed the ability to recognize other people's thoughts or feelings.

Respect, Shrand says, is also key. "It is within respect that a kid can unleash their unlimited human potential."

When determining appropriate risks, Scott and Annelle Doxey have operated by one philosophy: Teach correct principles, trusting and supporting kids in their decisions instead of holding them back. "If you do that, they will make the right choices," Annelle Doxey said.

"A lot of people don’t take risks, because they are afraid to fail," Alex Doxey said. "The truth is, not taking the risk is already accepting failure."

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at rachel.lowry@gmail.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere