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4 At-Risk Behaviors in Teens & What Parents Can Do

Teens are known to have a penchant for impulsivity and instant gratification. Even scientists have studied these habits and come to the conclusion that teen brains are simply wired for risk.

But just what kind of at-risk or high-risk behaviors should parents be on the lookout for?

To start with, at-risk behaviors are defined as anything that puts adolescents on the path to future negative consequences such as injury, poor health, incarceration and even death.

Since most teens rarely think ahead to the consequences of their actions, it’s up to parents to recognize some of these dangerous behaviors and caution the youth against them while guiding them to making better decisions.

4 At-Risk Behaviors to Watch Out For

So synonymous are the youth with certain high-risk behaviors that the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks some of these in their Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) and releases results in every two years.

Here are some of the common at-risk behaviors for today’s youth:

1. Tobacco, Alcohol and Other Drug Use

According to the 2018 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey carried out by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), past-year use of nearly all illicit drugs (except marijuana) was at its lowest levels in over two decades.

While those statistics are promising, teen drug use is still higher than it should be. For instance, data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 2017, reveals that 29.8% currently drink alcohol and 19.8% use marijuana. Other popular drugs among young adults include opioids or prescription pills, inhalants, hallucinogens, ecstasy and methamphetamines.

The effects of substance abuse are varied and far-ranging, affecting not only the teen’s physical and mental health but also their families’ well-being.

2. Sexual Risk Behaviors

Teenage brings with it lots of changes, so it’s understandable that teens want to experiment sexually. Unfortunately, data shows that few of them are consistently using protection or any form of birth control. This exposes them to risks including unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Although some STIs are curable, they can result in lifelong complications.

Parents also need to be aware of rising cases of rape and sexual violence among teens as well as increased viewing of pornography and how it affects the teenage brain.

3. Eating Disorders

Teenagers (especially girls) today are more conscious of their bodies thanks to unrealistic standards set on social media. In order to attain the “perfect bodies” portrayed in the media, some teens end up with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Others turn to comfort eating as a response to the stress in their lives and yet others become overweight or obese thanks to adopting a sedentary lifestyle that’s all too common nowadays.

4. Behaviors that Contribute to Injury and Violence

Most teens display a lax attitude when it comes to preventive measures such as wearing safety belts or helmets. There’s also been an increase in incidences of drunk driving and distracted driving.

While behaviors such as physical fights, carrying weapons contribute to injury and violence, most of us overlook bullying, suicide and self-harm, yet these have a devastating impact on teens and their families. Suicide especially is the 2nd leading cause of death among teens in the U.S. and is closely linked to depression. Some teens, on the other hand, turn to non-suicidal self-harm like cutting, burning, hitting themselves, etc. as a way of releasing emotional pain.

What Can Parents Do?

1. Do your homework.

Educate yourself on the issues teens face nowadays, the popular drugs, the symptoms that indicate trouble, etc. This way, you’ll be able to have factual discussions with your teen.

2. Have open, ongoing conversations with your teens.

Make your home a place where open conversations and discussions are welcome. Encourage your teens to come to you whenever they have questions and also learn to find teachable moments in every day.

3. Be a good role model.

What you say to your teens will carry more weight if you set a good example of the values and habits you want your teen to emulate. Walk the talk.

4. Get to know your teens.

Teens live in their own world so get familiar with it. Learn about your teen’s friends, schoolmates, who they hang out with and what they get up to. This way, you’ll easily spot signs of trouble plus you’ll be building a solid relationship with your teen.

5. Be available and supportive.

Be supportive, understanding and non-judgmental if you want your teen to open up to you. Listen to them, validate their feelings and give them a safe space to vent. Also, assure them that you’re available and willing to help should they ever find themselves in trouble.

6. Get your teen the help they need.

If you notice any troubling symptoms in your teen, get them help. This could be booking an appointment with a counselor or therapist or getting them admitted to a therapeutic boarding school. Be ready to help them do whatever they need to get their lives back on the right track.

With teens being prone to an ever-increasing number of risks, it’s imperative that parents not only be aware of those risks but also know how to mitigate them for the good of their families.


Mounts, S.N. Ph.D. (2015). Why Are Teen Brains Designed for Risk-taking? Psychology Today. Retrieved from

NIDA. (2018, December 17). Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends. Retrieved from on 2018, December 18

CDC. (2018, June 15). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -United States, 2017. Retrieved from

Help Your Teen Now. (2014, September 25). How Pornography Addiction Affects the Teenage Brain – Infographic. Retrieved from

4 At-Risk Behaviors in Teens & What Parents Can Do

Tyler Jacobson

Tyler enjoys going to the mountains near his home in Draper, Utah to connect with his wife and children through camping, hiking, and quality time together. When he isn’t rebooting in the outdoors, he shares his fatherly experiences with the world through writing and creative designs. Tyler shares the ups and downs of family life and the solutions he’s found through lengthy research and involvement in the industry and his own experiences to help parents everywhere. Follow Tyler on: Twitter or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Jacobson, T. (2019). 4 At-Risk Behaviors in Teens & What Parents Can Do. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Jan 2019 (Originally: 19 Jan 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Jan 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.