Healthy Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescent Girls
Recorded by: Aliya Khan
Length: 8 minutes, 56 seconds
The Adolescent Girls Committee's October podcast discusses the importance of risk-taking behavior in adolescent and teen girls. Girls are oftentimes discouraged from taking risks, but, as Lynn Ponton notes, risks are a valuable and essential part of children's development (1998). As research by Byrnes, Miller, and Schafer (1999) and Weber, Blais, and Betz (2002) indicate, there are gender differences between boys and girls in risk-taking behaviors. Those differences could affect girls' perception of risks and willingness to engage in them later in life. The podcast discusses ways that girls can increase their decision-making skills when it comes to risks (Neihart, 1999) and concludes with tips about how to celebrate and encourage girls' positive risk-taking behaviors.
This month’s podcast was researched and written by Aliya Khan from Chatham University. Aliya serves on the APA’s Division 35: Society of Psychology of Women Committee on Adolescent Girls.
This month’s topic is about fostering healthy risk-taking behavior in adolescent girls. We will talk a little about what healthy risk-taking behavior consists of, why it is important for young girls in particular and how we can help foster boldness in girls’ lives.
In the book "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things That They Do," Dr. Lynn Ponton discusses both healthy and unhealthy risk-taking in girls. “Adolescents,” she writes, “take risks as a way of developing and defining themselves. They do this by taking on new challenges in areas that they often understand very little about, engaging in behaviors with results that range from devastating to extremely positive. Risk-taking is the major tool that adolescents use to shape their identities.”
The term “risk” has a negative connotation, especially when it comes to girls. Girls’ risky behavior elicits images of unsafe sex, drug use and criminality. Research on girls’ unhealthy behavior is plentiful. A simple literature search warns parents, counselors and teachers about what can happen when girls step out of the box.
But what about positive risks? Because really, the definition of risk is simply: “the possibility of suffering harm or loss; danger.” When we teach children to ride a bike, we know that they will probably fall over. They may even get hurt. But a scraped knee is part of the learning process, and it’s a risk that many feel is worth the experience. And most activities our children engage in will include risks. Teaching girls to avoid risk, or to view all risks as negative, is doing them a huge disservice in their development. And, as researchers will point out, girls will take risks whether or not we like it. And they may not be the type we want.
A meta-analysis performed by Byrnes, Miller, and Schafer in 1999 found after reviewing more than 150 papers, across the board, men were more likely to engage in risks than women. And in a 2002 study done by Weber, Blais, and Betz, women were found to be more cautious across different domains of risky behavior, such as financial and recreational, with the exception of social risk, in which case there was no significant difference.
Female-focused organizations like Girl Scouts and Girls Inc. emphasize the importance of healthy risk-taking. When I interned with teenage girls at a local Girls Inc. chapter, helping girls be “bold” as the mission stated, was a key part in effectively working with the girls. Why?
Because life is full of risks. Navigating through them effectively fosters confidence. Understanding what risk entails, weighing the options and deciding when to take the leap is a necessary skill to develop in order to succeed in life.
What if I raise my hand in class when the answer is really wrong? What if I apply for college and I do not get in? What if I get an interview for a job but it’s all the way across the country? Should I travel abroad? Should I stay in this relationship? These are some of the multitude of questions that girls ask themselves. And we want them to be able to make those choices—not out of fear, but out of a realistic understanding of the risks and the benefits, in keeping with their values and dreams.
Child psychologist Maureen Neihart in her article “Systematic Risk-Taking” separates risk-taking behavior in children to five different categories: intellectual, social, emotional, physical and spiritual risks. The systematic approach to risk taking, she suggests, includes:
- Understanding the beneﬁts of systematic risk taking
- Initial self-assessment of risk-taking categories
- Identifying personal needs
- Determining a risk to take
- Taking the risk
- Processing the risk experience
But how do we make the approach girl-friendly and something they will readily use? For me, it’s about creating an atmosphere where girls feel open and allowed to take risks. I believe when given the space and the room to grow, girls will take risks and make positive decisions. Researcher Alison Booth found that the gap in risky behavior between boys and girls, at least as far as athletics and competition goes, decreases when girls are in a same-sex environment. But what everyday life experience? What can parents or teachers do to encourage healthy risk taking in the classroom and on the playground?
Here are some ideas:
- Help build her confidence. Be genuine. Point out some of the small risks she may already be engaging in. “It must not have been easy to venture out in the deep end of the pool, I’m proud of you!” or “It’s really good that you feel confident enough to walk to the bus stop by yourself now.”
- This becomes more important as girls get older and may start to push the boundaries, making parents uneasy. Talk to girls about the risks that they are taking, why you as a parent feel uneasy, and give a balanced view of the benefits and risks (and remember, there are always benefits, whether we like it or not!)
- Provide girls opportunities to take risks in safe environments. Encourage them to participate in athletics even though they may get injured. Have them try rock climbing. If they like to write or draw, try to find a way for them to submit it in a contest or have it put on display. Maybe they should try out of the school play or try a new instrument. When talking about these activities, walk them through the systematic approach informally, talking about what they could get out of it, some of the risks and whether they would still like to pursue it.
- Display photographs of your daughter succeeding at risk-taking behaviors (catching a fish, rock climbing, performing in the school play) in your home, so she is reminded of how brave she is.
- Encourage them to try new things. Make adventure and new things more approachable, less scary. This may be particularly hard if, as adults, we ourselves are hesitant to try new things. Think of this as a bonding opportunity, a chance for both of you to step outside your comfort zone.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “you gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself: ‘I’ve lived through this. I can take the next thing that comes along.” (Pause) Thank you for listening to this podcast, produced for APA’s Division 35: Society for the Psychology of Women. I'm Aliya Khan, recording at Chatham University on behalf of the Committee for Adolescent Girls. Thank you for your commitment to raising strong girls.
Byrnes, J.P., Miller, D.C., & Schafer, W.D. (1999). Gender differences in risk taking: A metaanalysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 367–383.
Neihart, M. (1999). Systematic risk-taking. Roeper Review, 21(4), 289-292.
Ponton, L. (1998). The romance of risk: Why teenagers do the things they do. New York: Basic Books.
Weber, E.U., Blais, A.-R., & Betz, E. (2002). A domain-specific risk-attitude scale: Measuring risk perceptions and risk behaviors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 15, 263–290.