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How & Why to Raise Healthy Risk Takers

Healthy risk takers – one of the most tricky parenting calls you’ll have to make. Where’s the line between too protective and too permissive?

How can we raise healthy risk takers?

Children are faced with a range of hazards throughout their development and it is important that they learn how to safely navigate risky situations. Parents have a crucial role to play in ensuring their child has the opportunity to gauge risks for themselves and to safely try and fail.

Every parent will have watched their child approach a new situation and felt a deep urge to protect them from what might happen. Your three-year-old daughter steps too close to the deep end of the pool and you worry – what if she falls in? Your soon-to-graduate from high-school son puts unrealistic preferences on his university applications and you think, ‘what if he ends up with no offers to study next year?’

In today’s world, there is no shortage of tumultuous and frightening experiences that our children may face: from internet dangers and unsafe sexual behaviour, to global warming and disease.

As adults, we have the benefit of well-developed neural wiring and years of lived experience to help us recognise, evaluate and manage the risks of daily life. For our children, however, assessing risk across all domains of their life is something they will need to be guided through. This will ensure a good balance between taking on challenges, and maintaining a safe and secure existence.

Developmental psychology research demonstrates that risk-taking is a healthy and necessary part of childhood and human growth. We need to be able to make mistakes, navigate bumps in the road, and leap at life’s opportunities.

It is therefore imperative that we develop ways to support the exploration of new things while also minimising the risk of harm or unintended consequences.

In an age of over-parenting, how we approach risks with our children requires careful consideration. Our role is not to inoculate our children against taking risks, but to steer them towards taking thoughtful, positive risks.

How do children assess risk?

There are a number of stages of approaching risks that children will come to master, particularly when given the opportunity to receive feedback and reflect on their successes and failures. Firstly, children must be able to recognise a risk or a hazard.

For example, they learn to distinguish that sharp rocks may cause them harm if stepped on. Secondly, children learn to evaluate potential risks that they come across and the possible consequences the risks might have. They become aware that crossing the road can be dangerous and that running into oncoming traffic may lead to serious injury.

Finally, the management stage of assessing risk sees children able to make appropriate choices about whether to engage with or avoid a hazard. This requires the capacity for being able to know consequences, reflect on past experiences and draw on increasing intuition to see the larger picture and therefore make wiser decisions.

Can adolescents be healthy risk takers?

During adolescence, the capacity to rely on intuition, or ‘gist thinking’, emerges coinciding with a time of particularly risky behaviour due to innate changes in how the brain develops during this life stage. Many teenagers act in extreme ways – testing the limits and engaging in sensation-seeking behaviours.

This is largely due to what is occurring in their brain chemistry, for example an increase in the drive for reward in the form of the ‘happy chemical’ dopamine. This can also be influenced by their environmental and relational experiences.

The adolescent mind is biased towards seeing the potential pros of a situation, and will naturally de-emphasise the potential risks, so adolescents need a specific type of guidance to ensure that they keep themselves, and others, safe.

An approach that embraces this enhanced drive for thrill-seeking and helps the child to instead find constructive ways of channeling this will best enable adolescents to develop their own self-reflection and risk-assessment skills. This is by far a more productive choice than just throwing our hands up in the air and thinking we’re just dealing with ‘raging hormones’.

Helping our children become healthy risk takers

There are a number of things to be aware of in supporting children to develop healthy risk-taking behaviour. Every child is born with a certain temperament, which will influence their approach to and experience of the world. Some children will be more natural dare-devils and so will need added assistance to learn to stop and think through their options before acting on them.

Meanwhile, other children will be born with the capacity to weigh up their options and so may need more encouragement to give challenges a go. Developing a thorough and thoughtful understanding of each individual child’s strengths and weaknesses is therefore key to raising good risk-takers.

Naturally, parents have a crucial role to play in supporting the development of positive risk-taking behaviour in their children. The parent-child relationship provides the primary channel for children to learn about themselves and the world.

Self-reflective parents who are able to model, nurture and teach good risk-taking skills while still allowing their children the time and space to experiment and test things out for themselves, are most likely to raise thoughtful, positive and healthy risk takers. Parents do best when they adopt a guiding, questioning approach to helping their child learn about safety and problem solving, rather than giving lectures or implementing black-and-white rules.

In fact, research has shown that sometimes the parental urge to protect can be taken too far, resulting in children who are not afforded enough opportunities to develop their risk-taking skills. This can leave them quite sheltered in their experiences and unable to approach hazards independently and can also impact other parts of development (such as fine motor skills, muscle and joint control, self-regulation skills, and resiliency).

The aim is to raise children who are competent, responsible for their own actions, and who can maintain their sense of self even in the face of failure. If we swoop in and rescue our children too soon, we do not allow them the opportunity to develop these key life skills.

What can schools do to help?

Schools also have a potentially powerful scope of influence regarding the development of healthy risk-taking behaviour in children and adolescents. For most children, school will be a safe and controlled place in their life that will present daily opportunities for trying new things, tackling interesting challenges and pushing the limits of comfort.

In fact, in many ways schools are designed to present children with risky scenarios and then support them to navigate their way safely through them. They may be faced with the introduction of a new maths problem that the child has to solve without knowing whether they will get the answer correct, or take the opportunity to nominate for class captain, which leaves the child vulnerable to scrutiny.

Schools and teachers can support students to analyse scenarios, weigh up the options and act on their decisions with self-confidence – to give that maths question a go and see if they get the right answer, or to accept a nomination and potentially fulfil their leadership aspirations.

Encouraging this healthy risk-taking behaviour goes a long way towards building children’s risk-taking capacities and demonstrating the inevitability and survivability of failure, with each risk taken being a potential growth opportunity.

Written by: Dr Alix Vann, Psychologist, Brisbane Girls Grammar School

This article was published in Issue 23 of our print magazine, August/September 2017.

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Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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