Healthy Risk Taking

I was talking to a friend about how he spent his holidays skiing with his son.  The story of his 7 year old skiing brought to light for me an interesting epiphany.  He told me that his son spent the morning skiing cautiously, but by the afternoon, his confidence had grown.  The afternoon was fairly panic inducing for my friend as he watched his 7 year old careening down the hill.  He (understandably) worried that his son wasn’t able to maneuver around others or stop when he needed to. 

In this scenario, and so many others, we can see a problematic dynamic:

A CHILD’S COURAGE  is indirectly proportional to A PARENT’S FEARS

In other words: the more confident a child feels, the less confident the parent feels?  It’s not always the case, but it often happens doesn’t it?  The idea that a child’s courage or confidence causes more anxiety, rather than less anxiety in today’s parents, is rather backward isn’t it? But it makes sense because the more confidence a child has (even if it’s misplaced), the more risks he/she will want to take.

In my introductory workshop (Keeping Tweens and Teen’s Out of Trouble: Tools and Tips for Today’s Parents) I talk a lot about a parent’s job versus a teen’s job.  One of the key roles for parents: boost confidence and courage in your child.  Yet the more confident and courage a child has, the more likely he/she will take risks.

We have forgotten that risk taking is good.  Imagine if a mother birds never encouraged her sons/daughters to spread their wings and fly out of the nest?  A bird without flight has to hide all its life from predators.  No one wants a child who feels they have to hide from the world in order to survive.

Pushing a child to take risks is so scary because there’s so many ways in which they might get hurt, right?  It’s true.  Some hurts are good, though, because they build resilience.

Children (like all humans) are animals, and they will follow their instinctual survival skill: to take risks (to spread their wings and take flight).  Risks mean that they are leading exciting lives, and let’s be honest, even as adults we don’t dull and boring lives without risk.  We enjoy challenges and new adventures.   Unfortunately, we see too often that tweens and teens don’t know what risks to take, except for those that their peers (or the media) show them.  But through our fear and our discomfort with their (perhaps even misfounded) confidence, we discourage them from taking risks. By doing this, we find that they take unhealthy risks that abuse their bodies and minds (often behind our backs).

That’s where healthy risk taking comes in.  I like to think about health from the six dimensions of health, and these dimensions can apply for healthy risk taking.  It’s also helpful to take risks with your tweens/teens. If you’re staying in your own comfort zone, then you’re not role modeling healthy behaviors (so why would expect more from your child than from your own self?).

Examples of Healthy Risk Taking

  • Physical risks: learning a new sport, challenging one’s body, trying new foods (eg. take a cooking class together)
  • Emotional risks: addressing conflict, expressing your feelings (not just verbally, but maybe through poetry or art, or get a mood magnet), addressing negativity or rewarding optimism (eg. a money jar for every genuine, positive comment about school/work)
  • Social risks:  making friends with someone new (eg. inviting the new kid in the class over for dinner), joining a club/group that allows you to meet new people, learning about healthy relationships
  • Occupational risks: exploring and celebrating your talents/skills, taking an online career test, setting realistic goals and checking progress, taking on a new class
  • Intellectual risks: working on a puzzle/Sudoku/crossword together, watching a documentary or educational TV show, debating about serious topics (eg. if you were in charge of your school, what classes would you take,  and why? what other changes would you make?)
  • Spiritual risks: take part in a religious ceremony that you don’t belong to, talk about what it means to “live your best life?” or “what keeps you going every day, even when times are tough?”, learn about a new spirituality, cook a meal that has religious/spiritual meaning

Risk-taking is a good thing for tweens and teens, because they are Adults In Training.  As Adults in Training, they’ll figure out what risks they want to take, but I hope that parents will help them find risks that will empower and enlighten their lives.  Otherwise, they’ll sneak out at night and take risks that lower their respect for their bodies and their friends, families and teachers.

So here’s to my friend who withstood his own discomfort so that he could encourage his son to take healthy risks by learning to ski.  That’s a lifelong gift to his son, for certain; likely better than anything he could have gotten under that Christmas tree this holiday season!

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