Risky business: Encouraging (safe) risk-taking behaviour in your child

Challenge and risk-taking activities are directly linked to children’s self-esteem

Risk is a major developmental milestone in adolescence, largely because of how the adolescent brain rewires with the thrill-seeking and reward drive of the brain developing very quickly while the part of the brain that serves to urge caution, consideration and to weigh up pros and cons takes until at least the mid-20s to develop. So teenagers are neurologically wired to take risks but the groundwork for their relationship to risk begins in early childhood and we (parents) must grow this in line with our children’s growth.

Take, for example, when your baby starts to crawl – or stand and wobble – you may have been blessed with a climber, a child who sees every standing piece of furniture and windowsill in your home as an invitation. Bring to mind those times your young child is climbing and exploring playground equipment and might stumble, fall as they do so. Think again to when your older child participates in team sports or takes up a hobby outside of their typical school peer group and has to meet new people and develop new relationships. Or the first time they walk to school with a friend rather than with you or learn to cycle a bike or walk to the shop alone for the first time.

Simply put, risk-taking behaviour is making a choice or taking an action when the outcome of that choice or action is unknown and cannot be fully predicted ie anything with a chance of success or failure but which you do anyway.

I always encourage parents I work with to pause and engage in a parental risk self-audit, which is a list of questions I developed to explore and reflect on our own relationship to risk. These are questions such as:

If you think something is against the rules, would it stop you doing it? Is it difficult for you to send a meal back or make a complaint in a restaurant? Does how others might think/feel about you influence your actions? Do you often do things to please others even if it is not something you want to do?

We want children to take risks, we want them to take chances and try new things

Understanding our own relationship to risk-taking behaviour is really helpful when it comes to parenting our children through each stage of development and risk features in different ways across all stages of development.

If you are risk avoidant you may pass your hesitation down to your children if you dissuade them from taking risks or hover while they do so. We want children to take risks, we want them to take chances and try new things in unfamiliar situations and environments. We want them to take risks that are, at least mostly, positive risks rather than harmful ones as this primes them to engage in healthy risk taking behaviour during adolescence.

Risk aversion and fear conditioning begins early and it has a gendered lens. Challenge and risk-taking activities are directly linked to children’s self-esteem, yet girls are more likely to be warned away from such activities than same age boys are. A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology showed parents are much more likely to caution their daughters about the dangers of climbing a playground pole while encouraging their same aged sons to do just that. We encourage boys to face fears and girls to become fearful. This is something we must be mindful of when introducing our children to (appropriate) levels of risk.

Kindness is a healthy risk-taking behaviour. I know it may not seem like it but practising kindness involves emotionally reaching out in a bid to connect with those around you in a meaningful way without guarantee that your bid to connect will be reciprocated.  As such, kindness is a vulnerable process that carries risk: risk of rejection and risk of being hurt. We must raise our children to look upon kindness as a strength of character and nurture this in them as they grow.

In addition to being healthy risk-taking behaviour there are many psycho-social benefits to being kind not least of which is the helper's high it releases bringing a sense of belonging, community, connection and pride leaving us healthier and happier.

So, be aware of the gendered lens associated with risk taking. Be mindful of your own relationship to risk (as a child and now as a parent). Consciously avoid sabotaging healthy risk taking behaviour with unnecessary caution. Easy for me to say, right? If this is difficult for you, start by asking yourself what is the worst that could happen here? What is the potential benefit and learning from this behaviour? Now, weigh one up against the other and take a risk on risk-taking behaviour.

15-Minutes of risk taking play

Cushion-balance/jump: Place one cushion on the floor and have your child stand on it and centre themselves (easy). Praise their effort – great idea to stand right in the middle for balance, etc. Have them jump off, either into your open arms or onto a sofa/pile of cushions. Now place a second cushion onto the first and repeat. Then a third cushion and repeat and so on until you see them struggle, when you can give them your shoulder to balance and end the game on that number of cushions.

Blindfold-walk: Show your child around the space of the room. Show them how you are placing (safe) obstacles around the room. Cover their eyes and tell them to listen and follow your directions while you safely guide them around the room. Swap roles for a second round with a slightly older child and allow them guide you.

Kindness challenge: Take a week or even a month and set a challenge that everyone must practice one act of kindness each day. Something small is great. Keep a kindness notebook for everyone to share what they did each day. At the end do a shared, larger scale act of kindness. Maybe saving a small amount of pocket money/skipping your take-out coffee and saving the daily cost and do something together eg make dignity packs to drop to a hostel for people who experience homelessness or bring flowers to a home for the elderly, etc.

Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting Series of books (See solamh.com). Throughout Health Month, she will be suggesting playful ways to connect with your children this year