Why Do Teenagers Put Themselves at Risk?

Many times, put themselves at risk without measuring the consequences in order to test themselves. Learn more about this tendency.
Why Do Teenagers Put Themselves at Risk?
Sharon Capeluto

Written and verified by the psychologist Sharon Capeluto.

Last update: 02 March, 2023

Adolescents are often seduced by danger. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they have the desire to engage in certain behaviors that could even put themselves at risk. Keep reading to learn more about this topic.

We’re talking about intense experiences that generally release adrenaline, one of the sensations frequently sought by young people. For this reason, they enjoy extreme sports, driving vehicles at excessive speeds, taking drugs, overindulging in alcohol, or going into unsafe areas at night, just to name a few examples.

The point is that teenagers seek contact with danger on a regular basis. This particular characteristic tends to diminish once adulthood arrives. In this article, we’ll discuss the possible reasons why teens make decisions that involve exposure to danger.

Adolescents and danger

To begin with, we should know that the emotional aspect takes much more relevance than the rational aspect in the decisions of adolescents. In this regard, the prefrontal cortex, which is fundamental for impulse inhibition and the capacity for self-control, doesn’t finish maturing until the age of 25 or 27. In contrast, the limbic system, directly associated with emotions, matures before the prefrontal cortex.

According to a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University (USA), the attraction to risky behaviors is regulated by a group of neurons linked to the reward system. Although not all young people are equally seduced when it comes to exploring the limits, most of them find a certain motivation there. Therefore, they find excitement, enthusiasm, and well-being in activities that in the eyes of an adult might be perceived as considerably risky.

The emotional reward for somewhat daring adventures means that young people don’t hesitate to jump off a cliff while on a vacation with friends. Nor do they hesitate to skateboard down a downhill street. Adrenaline is what drives adolescents to repeatedly seek these pleasurable sensations and put themselves at risk.

A teenager rock climbing.
Risky experiences increase the secretion of hormones such as adrenaline and dopamine, which generate pleasurable sensations in adolescents.

Risk, impulsivity, and intensity

Adolescents put themselves at risk and flirt with danger because they want to feel alive. Emotional intensity is one of the most relevant characteristics at this stage of life. Therefore, it’s inconsistent to expect young people to show emotional stability and to live particularly calm experiences. They’re characterized by a certain degree of impulsivity. They’re characterized by a certain degree of impulsivity, as their self-control system still needs time to mature.

Often, adolescents act without measuring the consequences because emotions predominate over logical reasoning. At the same time, many young people do things when they’re with their friends that they wouldn’t do when they’re alone. This happens because both approval and social rewards assume a great deal of value at this stage. The most important thing for them is to feel part of a group, even if that means putting their own lives in jeopardy.

It’s clear that peer groups and early sexual-affective bonds take on significant roles during this period. Being recognized and accepted by their peers gives teens well-being and confidence. Therefore, they’re likely to lose sight of the real dimension of certain risks when in a group.

Adolescents who play with the limits of danger to find themselves

It’s essential to keep in mind that most adolescents who put themselves at risk don’t have to intention of harming themselves. Rather, they seek to feel pleasurable emotions. In this way, they try to test themselves by getting to know and exploring their psychological, physical, or cognitive resources in greater depth.

This is a necessary personal challenge in a period of profound confusion and instability. Adolescents are going through a critical moment in their existence. Emotions, pressures, mandates, or their own demands are pressing with overwhelming force. Anthropologist and sociologist, David Le Breton, explains that risky behavior appears during this stage as a not very healthy way to appease the characteristic suffering of adolescence.

At the same time, the critical stance toward adults reflects another possible reason that can explain the risky behaviors of minors. Sometimes, rebelliousness is nothing more than a reinforcement of one’s own identity.

A teenager driving fast through a tunnel.
Adolescents often expose themselves to danger in order to differentiate themselves from their parents or other significant adults in a quest to reaffirm their identity.

How to act?

It’s possible to prevent adolescents from exposing themselves to dangerous situations. To do so, adults need to make an effort to communicate with them through respect and understanding. It’s essential to enable and encourage dialogue at home and thus create spaces in which children feel safe to express what they feel and think.

In turn, it’s essential to take care of young people based on a comprehensive approach and create spaces for parents, educators, and mental health professionals. Regarding risk behaviors, these should be addressed by interdisciplinary teams specialized in each particular problem.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Knutson, B., Wimmer, G. E., Kuhnen, CM & Winkielman, P. (2008). La activación del núcleo accumbens media la influencia de las señales de recompensa en la toma de riesgos financieros. Neuroreport 19, 509–513 (2008).
  • Seoane, A. (2015). Adolescencia y conductas de riesgo. Trabajo final de grado. Facultad de Psicología. Universidad de la República Uruguay.
  • St Onge, J. R. & Floresco, S. B. (2009) Modulación dopaminérgica de la toma de decisiones basada en el riesgo. Neuropsicofarmacología 34, 681–697 (2009).
  • UNICEF (2021). Adolescentes. Riesgos: ¿por qué los adolescentes se exponen a más riesgos? Disponible en  www.unicef.org/uruguay

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.