Teen challenge helps adolescents grow. In fact, teens are hardwired to seek challenge. They need healthy challenges in order to develop and mature.
Facing challenge helps teens become independent. Moreover, they come to understand more about their abilities and identities.
However, sometimes teens choose unhealthy challenges and risks. These unhealthy risks, such as using drugs or driving unsafely, can be life threatening. Therefore, parenting teens involves helping adolescents find safe, positive ways to challenge themselves.
Why Teens Seek Challenge and Risk
According to a study by University College London (UCL), risk-taking behavior peaks during adolescence. As an adolescent’s social-emotional system matures, they crave stimulation and teen challenge.
Moreover, the study found that teens took risks because they enjoyed the thrill. In fact, they often understood the consequences of their behavior. However, the desire to take risks was stronger than their common sense.
That’s because the teen brain is not fully developed. Therefore, the areas controlling impulses and decision-making are still immature.
The study involved adolescents and adults aged nine to 35 years. Participants chose between risky and safe options in a computer gambling game. Scientists found that the teenagers took the most risks compared with the other groups. In fact, 14-year olds demonstrated the most risky behavior. In other words, they were constantly seeking challenge and excitement.
“The onset of adolescence marks an explosion in ‘risky’ activities—from dangerous driving, unsafe sex, and experimentation with alcohol, to poor dietary habits and physical inactivity. This contributes to the so-called ‘health paradox’ of adolescence, whereby a peak in lifetime physical health is paradoxically accompanied by high mortality and morbidity. Understanding why adolescents take such risks is important for public health interventions and for families.”
—Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, UCL Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, co-author of the study
Healthy Challenge May Prevent Teen Depression
Teen challenge can be a good thing, if it takes place within safe boundaries. Consequently, it promotes emotional, mental, and social development. Furthermore, researchers have discovered that teen challenge may even ward off depression.
Eva Telzer, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, investigated how the teen brain responds to risks and challenges. Hence, she examined how risk-taking is linked to depression.
In one study, Telzer and her colleagues used MRI technology to measure activity in the brains of adolescents. They measured their responses to different types of rewarding activities. For example, the teens were given opportunities to donate money to family members. In addition, they had to make risky, uncertain decisions to earn money for themselves.
Before the study, the researchers measured the teens’ depression symptoms. Subsequently, they looked at how the teenager’s levels of depressive symptoms changed over the following year.
While being challenged by the tasks, the teens showed intense activity in the area of the brain associated with experiencing rewards. However, teenagers who took risks to benefit their family members had a lower risk of depression a year later. Therefore, researchers concluded that getting pleasure from risk-taking doesn’t necessarily lead to depression. It depends on why teens are taking the risks.
To summarize, Telzer says that positive teen challenge can help protect against depression. Such challenges include pro-social behavior, academic engagement, and different types of hobbies, she says. Therefore, residential treatment centers for teenage depression often build healthy challenge their programs.
Unhealthy Teen Challenges
As we have seen, teens are biologically programmed to take risks and challenge themselves. It’s part of growth. So when teens don’t have healthy challenges, they take dangerous risks. Such risks fall into five main categories.
Behavior that may lead to violence or injury: This category includes being in a fight, bullying or being bullied, carrying a weapon, self-harm, and considering or attempting suicide.
Unsafe sexual behavior: This category includes having intercourse before the age of 13, not using protection during intercourse, not being tested for HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. Moreover, it includes drinking alcohol or using drugs during or before intercourse.
Alcohol, substance, and tobacco use: This category includes drinking alcohol in any amount, binge drinking, and using prescription or illegal drugs, as well as smoking cigarettes or using chewing tobacco.
Unsafe driving or riding: This type of risk includes driving while texting or e-mailing, driving after drinking or using drugs, or not wearing a seatbelt. Furthermore, it includes riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking or using drugs. It also includes riding a bike after drinking or using drugs, and riding a bike without a helmet.
Poor self-care: This category includes unhealthy eating, not sleeping enough, and inadequate physical activity. And it includes excessive social media and screen time.
When Teen Challenge Is Part of Life
Sometimes teens encounter real-life struggles that challenge them. And these are not challenges that they would have chosen. However, teens can grow from these challenges also.
Tests and trials are a necessary part of life,” says Crit Callebs, a mentor and therapeutic facilitator at Newport Academy. “You have to be tested through struggles and eventually overcome them, or you will never grow into your own power. Every time you are tested by a hardship or problem, it forces you to go within and find your own personal strength, skill, or solution that is uniquely yours.”
Crit continues: “When you find those qualities, you realize that you have the ability to solve life’s problems. You can survive on your own, and find a way to make things happen.”
Furthermore, Crit says that life challenges allow teens to tap into their inner grit, determination, creativity, and resolve. And each time they do so, they learn more about themselves.
“In addition, teens learn and understand that they have an unbelievable toolbox of skills and traits to use,” he says. “This natural process is a true path to self-empowerment and you earn the right to believe in yourself. Earning it is the key!”
How Do Teens Get Healthy Challenge?
There’s no doubt that teens require challenge in order to grow. Therefore, parenting teenagers includes helping them find healthy ways to push their boundaries. Here are some options for teen challenge that parents can get behind.
Outdoor Adventure Therapy:
Residential treatment centers for youth often provide Adventure Therapy for adolescents. That’s because activities such as ropes courses, rock climbing, kayaking, and standup paddleboarding give teens healthy challenges.
“Each time we’re presented with a problem and we use our mental and physical abilities to overcome it, we learn self-reliance. In addition, we move from a state of helplessness to a sense of empowerment. Adventure Therapy provides multiple opportunities for teens to find and implement solutions, individually and as a group. Therefore, this process builds their self-esteem and connection with others.”
—Tim Walsh, Director of Experiential Learning at Newport Academy
Playing sports gives teens ways to challenge themselves. Adolescents can push their skills to the limit in a supportive environment.
Art, theater, standup comedy, and other forms of creative expression provide beneficial challenges. This is especially true when teens get up in front of an audience or show their work to others.
Indoor rock climbing, riding rollercoasters, or going to a theme park all satisfy the teen urge to take risks and be on the edge.
Trying something new:
Diving into a new activity is a way to expand your limits. Taking lessons in a new skill can challenge teens. Or the whole family could go river rafting, for example. Teens don’t have to take risks alone!
Healthy eating challenge:
Eating well is good for teens. However, restrictive diets can be dangerous for teens who are prone to eating disorders. Hence, parents need to make sure that healthy eating habits don’t cross over into disordered eating.
Meeting new people can be a healthy teen challenge. Being a camp counselor, joining a club, or taking a class after school are all ways for teens to get outside their comfort zone.
Studying abroad or joining a group trip for teens involves risk and challenge. Moreover, such experiences will promote teenagers’ growth in multiple ways.
In conclusion, there’s no getting around it: Teens will always seek thrills and push the limits. They’re made that way. But parents can help them find healthy challenges that support growth and minimize risk.
Images courtesy of unsplash
Cogn Dev. 2010 Apr; 25(2): 183–196.
PNAS May 6, 2014. 111 (18) 6600-6605.