Over and over again, studies have shown that teens and young adults are more likely to engage in risky behavior than any other age group. This behavior ranges from sexual promiscuity to substance abuse to dangerous thrill-seeking and extreme sports. As parents, there’s no need to read scientific reports to know that teens often engage in behavior that could be dangerous and impact the rest of their lives. However, science CAN help us understand why.

Risk versus Reward

One of the most important things to understand about teenage risk-taking behavior is that while it might seem illogical to an adult, it makes more sense to a teenage brain. Any decision is based on the counteracting values of risk versus reward. When the reward seems inconsequential (for example, getting a boyfriend) to us, it seems silly to engage in risky behavior in order to attain it. However, for teens, the reward center of the brain usually acts quite differently.

Teens are wired to value peer approval much more heavily than we do at any other time of our lives. That means that something that’s an inconsequential reward to us might really feel like a matter of life or death to a teen. If the payoff is worthwhile, then often, so is the risk.

Impulse Control

One of the leading theories about teenage high-risk behavior has to do with the development of the frontal cortex, the part of our brains associated with planning and impulse control. This area is still underdeveloped in teens, who might have less power to resist impulses… even to the detriment of safety. Although some newer theories counter this argument, it’s important to understand that teens are still in need of safety and guidance from parents in order to navigate this difficult period.

Exploration and Preparation

Although we often look at teenage exploration of risky behavior as a negative thing, it’s important to understand that it might also have an important function in healthy human development. Many human development researchers posit that risk-taking during the teenage years is a way to explore the world around us, and gain a greater understanding our own preferences and limitations. Taking risks–even risks such as drug use or high-speed driving–can be a way to prepare ourselves to make large decisions in the future, such as who to date or which job to take.

Whatever the reasons behind teenage risk-seeking behavior, our job as parents is a tricky one. On one hand, we have a continued job to protect our children and prevent disasters whenever possible. On the other hand, the teenage years are an important time of transition during which it’s important for teens to be able to explore their own potential and possibilities. They’re laying an important foundation that they’ll build on to become functional, responsible, and independent adults.