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Risk-taking for Tweens: It's Not Always What You Think

Raising your hand in class. Standing up for a friend. Trying out for a part in the school play. You might not define these activities as risky, but for tweens and teens, they often are. Healthy risk-taking is about independence, learning how to make decisions, and being comfortable taking appropriate risks because there's a parental safety net.

Though risk-taking is often equated with rebellion, there's a difference. Rebellious behavior, or negative risk-taking, includes dangerous activities such as drinking alcohol, using drugs, or running away. Healthy risk-taking tends to have a positive effect on a child's life.

Risk-taking is a normal part of growing up. The challenge for kids and parents is finding a way for teens to assess risk and choose activities and behavior that are constructive.

Boost in Self-Esteem

When Ashley switched schools in 10th grade, she said she wasn't going out for the cheerleading team. "In her old school," said Kathy, Ashley's mom, "she would've been captain of the junior varsity team." With only two spots open on her new school's varsity team and one of them likely to be filled by the captain's sister, Ashley said no to the prospect of trying out. "I was upset that she wasn't going to try because cheerleading was so important to her," said Kathy, "but she felt it wasn't worth the risk." Then Ashley changed her mind and was thrilled when she'd made the team. "It boosted her self-esteem," said Kathy. "We're always telling kids, 'Don't do the risky thing,' " she added, "but it's important to instill in them that if they don't risk, they don't grow."

For 12-year-old Darus, a lesson in risk-taking involved taking public transportation by himself. His mom, Judy, described his first attempt: "He didn't read the sign and ended up taking the train in the wrong direction. When he couldn't reach me by cell phone, he figured it out: He asked the train conductor to point him in the right direction." As a result of Darus' willingness to try, he learned a lesson. "I hope I don't make that mistake again," he said, "but if I do, I'll know what to do."

Molly, 12, recently took a healthy risk when she tried out for the school tennis team instead of sticking to soccer—a sport she knew she was good at. "I wanted to get better at tennis," said Molly. "It was a hard decision. But I made the team and have improved so much!" Molly added, "Now I know if I make a decision, I should go in feeling confident, not like, oh, did I make the wrong decision."

What's the best way parents can help their children with healthy risk-taking? Life is about risk. It's about letting go, growing, and independence. Kids need to feel there's support. Then they can learn how to take an appropriate risk.