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Teenagers Taking Risks

It can be hard being a parent with a teen going through what I term the 'I'm Invincible' phase. This is the phase when teens start doing scary and dangerous things (according to us parents) as a way of testing out their physical limits.

This is not surprising given that, at adolescence, teenagers are effectively given a 'new' body, one which has many improved features from that of their childhood body. It's no good as parents thinking we can tell them about the limits of this body; just as a toddler needs to work out for themselves how to balance to walk so a teen needs to work out for themselves how to use their changed body.

Pushing themselves that little bit further each time is necessary for the teen to find out what happens. They need to make mistakes so that they can self-adjust. They need to know just how fast, agile and strong their body is so they can use it appropriately in the future. Not knowing their own limits is potentially much more dangerous.

However some teens also use this phase to 'prove' themselves. In today's competitive society, teens have been brought up to want to be 'better' than someone else at something. For some teens this will be in the classroom, others on the sports field or through the performing arts but for some teens none of these avenues are available.

The only way they can prove themselves to be 'better' is through some daredevil type of physical activity, where they can show they are braver, can bear more pain or can think up some more elaborate plan. This is where these teens get their feelings of success, their sense of achievement, their sense of self-worth.

The 'I'm Invincible' phase is a crucial learning phase; it's all about taking risks and making judgements about risk. As parents, it's hard for us to let our teens take risks, we naturally want to protect them, but in attempting to protect them we are in reality often holding them back.

Taking risks is a necessary part of adult life; leaving one job for another, starting a business, asking someone out on a date all require a certain amount of risk. Although the risks in the 'I'm Invincible' phase are primarily based in the physical, they give a good foundation for taking risks in the emotional and cognitive realms in the future.

How to Handle the 'I'm Invincible' Phase

  • If at all possible, enrol your teen in a class or organisation where they can test their limits in a relatively safe environment eg sports, dance, scouts/guides, army/navy/air cadets.

  • For those that need to 'prove' themselves, give them chores that allow them to show off their new found physical strengths; re-think the chores they do to see if there are some more suited to their abilities. Receiving success, achievement and a sense of self-worth at home reduces the need to look for it elsewhere.

  • Use the language associated with 'I'm Invincible' to acknowledge your teen in day-to-day life. Words such as courage, brave, strong, determined, overcome, etc, can also be used to motivate your teen.

  • Examine your own fears; are your fears based on objective, rational information, or have they been exacerbated by other peoples' stories or news reports. Get the facts not the media hype.

  • Explain your fears to your teen by expressing concern over what others might do. If you express doubt in their abilities you will just make them more determined to prove you wrong. Eg "I don't want you riding your bike late at night because drivers are more likely to have accidents then" is much more readily received than "I don't want you riding your bike late at night because you might have an accident".

  • Do not use evidence of their mistakes to do 'I told you so'. Recognise mistakes as valuable learning, and then acknowledge the learning as you would any other type of learning.

    Carol Shepley has been involved with teenagers for over 10 years and, as the parent of a teen herself, fully understands the pressures placed on parents and teens today. She now shares this knowledge and experience through her website http://www.growingupmatters.com so that parents can help their teens become resilient, resourceful and responsible adults.

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