SALT LAKE CITY — Eighteen-year-old Alex Doxey steps onto the ledge of a 5-foot wall in the foothills of Salt Lake City, Utah, gauging the distance he must jump to avoid landing on the cement below.
He presses his sweaty palms against his bright red T-shirt and hurls into a front flip. His friends shout praises from above, but then the searing pain shooting through his body indicates that he has landed wrong.
Parents have long wondered why teenagers are such impulsive, temperamental sensation seekers. But experts indicate that those same exasperating traits may be necessary to success later in life. As a parent, knowing what risks are appropriate and how to point teens in the right direction can be pivotal.
Though his recovery from injured vertebrae took several months, Doxey — now a soon-to-be father himself — doesn't regret the risks he took as a teenager.
"My parents and the experiences they allowed me to have played a key role in teaching me how to safely take risks, and then how to deal with both the failure and triumph that accompany risks," Doxey said. "Life is risky, but learning how to deal with those risks provides incredible confidence."
Measuring the costs
Teens are notorious for their love of the thrill. This age group consumes more alcoholic drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that teenagers are three times more likely than adults to get into motor vehicle accidents.
While risky behavior seems to display a lack of judgment and a general disregard for consequences, experts say this may not be the case.
Teens actually overestimate risk, says Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and psychology at Cornell University. In a study conducted by Reyna, adolescents estimated that a sexually active teenage girl has a 60 percent chance of being infected with HIV, while Americans actually contract HIV at a comparatively minuscule rate.
"Sensation seeking is an adaptive mechanism," said Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry who uses neuroimaging to study the teen brain. "What we found is that teens are actually really good at measuring the costs, but perceive rewards differently."
Luna scanned the brains of teens, children and twenty-somethings who were instructed to look in the opposite direction of a flickering screen, requiring them to override the urge to seek new information and follow a prohibition, at the cost of curiosity.
Children failed about 45 percent of the time. While teens scored higher, they tended to make less use of brain regions that adults acted upon automatically: keeping focus, locating errors and observing performance. They were more apt to act on impulse.
When offered a reward, however, teens were able to utilize those same brain regions. In fact, by age 15 they could score as well as adults, resisting temptation about 70 to 80 percent of the time.
"Given the motivation, they could drive the brain to full-throttle," Luna said.
The brain scans help explain that teens are motivated to act in socially acceptable ways, allowing them to create a network of peers beyond family, Luna said. "Risks are the means by which teens gain skills that allow them to act independently from teachers and parents and coaches, a step into adulthood."
An adaptive mechanism
While sensation-seeking can prompt dangerous behaviors, researchers are beginning to understand that risk-taking may constitute an important developmental process. When taking risks, teens' brains may actually be developing traits essential to success later in life, experts find.
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."