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Managing Children's Risk-Taking Behaviour

May 26, 2018

There's no doubt that the balance of safety and risk-taking causes most parents a great deal of angst.  What can be helpful is to think back to when you were a child or an adolescent. Remember the times you got in trouble, hurt yourself, or learnt an important lesson?




Those memories stick in your mind for a reason - because the developing brain is wired for curiosity and exploration. 


Children are in a constant battle of dependence and independence, learning about themselves as they explore the world around them. Unfortunately, this often means experimenting with danger and pushing boundaries.  


I feel like there is quite a lot of information and advice readily available to parents regarding adolescents' risk-taking, so I'm going to focus specifically on children aged 3-11 here (but please let me know if you would find this helpful and I will add it to the list). With regards to development, testing boundaries and pushing limits is particularly appropriate for kids in this age bracket, especially those in the pre-school years. 


A child's tendency to act in a risky way depends on a range of factors, some of which I have listed below.  You will know if you have a fearless child, with a repertoire of phrases at the ready such as, "Be careful!",  "Are you sure you're OK?" and "Stop, Stop, Staaaaahp!" The reality is, most children are unaware that their behaviour may result in harm to themselves or others. 


The role adults play in this learning process is critical as children begin to associate their behaviour with consequences.  I must stress here, however, that the developing brain truly struggles with future planning and predicting consequences, so don't get your hopes up that your child will stop and evaluate all of the possible outcomes before acting...well not before they're 25 anyway. 


Why do kids behave in a risky way?

  • It's in their nature

  • They're bored

  • They're curious! 

  • They have absent or inadequate role models

  • They might have low self-esteem and be extra susceptible to peer pressure

  • They are asserting independence

  • They feel indestructible or invincible



So, what can you do to support healthy risk-taking?


As much as our instinct is to protect, we need to foster regular (I mean, daily) opportunities for children to take risks that are healthy and reasonable - that is, behaviours or actions where the benefits will most likely outweigh the possible harms.

  • Be a good role model. Behave in a way that demonstrates that you can have fun whilst still following the rules and staying safe. 

  • Create a dialogue about safety. This will help you across many settings and situations - crossing the road, walking in car parks, bathing in hot water, climbing up high, etc. Being able to simply articulate that something is 'unsafe' when children already understand what you mean by that word will diffuse a situation quick-smart! 

  • Explain your decision-making, especially if you're making a call that they are disappointed about. Kids constantly feel like they're missing out but if you reassure your child that your decision is guided by keeping them safe and that you love and care about them, this will reward you immensely over time (with a lesson far more important: a sense of security). 

  • Ask other parents if they are challenged by similar behaviours displayed by their own children. Sometimes, just knowing that your child isn't the only one pushing the boundaries is reassurance enough! 

  • Remind them how unique they are and celebrate their differences. If they are unsure about themselves and are feeling the pressure to conform, they might act in ways that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Always remind a child that they are loved and appreciated just the way they are. 


Things to consider:

  • Don't jump to your child's aid at every opportunity. When they are playing, resist the temptation to rescue or save them preventatively or instantly. Reassure them that you are physically present if they need you, but give them the opportunity to at least try taking the big jump off the play equipment on their own (the ground is tanbark for a reason!). 

  • Watch your language. Instead of saying something like, "I can't believe you just did that, what were you thinking?!", you could say, "I was so worried about you doing that, I want you to know that it's really dangerous, please don't do it again".  The difference between punishing and disciplining language here is really important, as children will quickly learn not to take risks (read: become afraid of trying anything) if they are punished every time they try something new. 

  • Take them trampolining! I have no evidence to back this up but there is something about jumping around (with the comfort of padded support if you fall) that builds your confidence, coordination and sense of body awareness, whilst providing a hit of adrenaline - something most kids are craving! 

  • Monitor what they are consuming on their screens and in stories. Kids love acting out what they read in books and watch on telly and they are also beautifully naive about the dangers of the world. Be clear to define what is "pretend play" and what is "real-world". There is far too much digital exposure to fighting and violence that even the most diligent parent controls cannot conceal (sorry!). Be sure to chat to a child about what they are seeing and make it clear to them what is and isn't appropriate. 

  • Let them use the scissors, chop the fruit, jump in the water, ride their scooter and play in the street. But SUPERVISE. Obviously take this advice with an age appropriate lens and respect your own values for control and safety. My view is that there is always the potential for bad things to happen but with adult presence and readiness to intervene, the risks can mostly be mitigated. 



Experiencing challenges and overcoming them is critical for a child's cognitive, sensory and motor development, but also to deal with difficulties that inevitably arise in the future. We tend to forget that as adults, we have a couple of decades of learning under our belt, most of which came from doing some potentially dangerous and crazy stuff.  Give your kids the same opportunities for fun, learning and growth... what's the worse that could happen?! 




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