Arthur Belmont, LMFT, CADC-CAS View Entire Blog

Parenting Adolescents and the Play of Chance and Risk

Life is chancy, including the chance we take by having children and the risks involved with becoming parents, particularly becoming parents of adolescents.

Because outcomes in life are determined by many factors beyond our knowing, we must work for likelihood, not certainty in our parenting. We are in charge of effort, but not outcome. We can inform adolescent choice, but we can’t control it. We can be correct some of the time, but not all of the time. We can assert adult influence, but we can’t ensure compliance. We can prepare, but we can’t prevent. Try as we may, there are no guarantees about how our parenting decisions, or our children, much less our adolescents, are going to “turn out.”

For our children, the play of chance starts with the endowments they are given – the human nature (physical characteristics, temperament, personality, aptitudes, and other inherited strengths and limitations) that equip a child at birth. In addition are the human nature of primary caregivers (usually parents), the social, cultural, and economic circumstances into which one is born.

A general goal for parents is to prepare their adolescents to stand a grown up chance in life. This is why for most parents, the power of formal education is important. It imparts much of the basic skills and knowledge, and credential for mobility. However, sometimes parents will attach more importance to successful school performance than it deserves, treating it as an immunity against other hazards of adolescent life, preventing chance of danger elsewhere. This is not necessarily so. Simply because an adolescent academically achieves doesn’t mean that all will be well in the rest of his or her life.

Of course, adolescents are inveterate risk takers. They’re always calculating the odds of giving something risky a try, of getting away with something, of getting out of something, of not getting found out about something, at least not right away. In addition, because growth requires experimenting with the new, the different, and the unknown.

What are some ways adolescents might increase the odds of chance in their favor? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Stay sober. Seven dire threats in adolescence – of serious accidents, social violence, school failure, sexual misadventures, dangerous risk taking, law breaking, and suicidal despondency – are all more likely to occur with substance use that alters judgment and favors impulsivity.

2. Exercise predictive responsibility. Knowing that all choices come with consequences, they can take a minute before automatically going along with some impulse or wild idea, and ask themselves three questions. “Why would I want to do this? What harmful outcomes might occur? Is the benefit worth the risk?”

3. Remain mindful of how group adventuring can cause members to go along with risky ventures into chance they would never individually undertake. Social momentum of the moment and pressure to conform to belong can both be hard to resist.

4. Commit to pursue some objective. Thinking ahead and working for what you want in life is powerful because it reduces the temptation to follow chance distractions.

5. Be determined. By keeping trying, by not giving into discouragement and not giving up because of failure, they keep the possibility of a successful outcome alive.

So what can parents tell their adolescent about playing the great lottery of life? If it sounds congenial, try something like this: “You make your choices, acting and reacting as you think best. You take your chances, never knowing for sure what the outcome is going to be. You face your consequences, taking what responsibility you can. You learn from what happened, from what went wrong and what went right. And then you ready yourself to choose again, because the chain of choice and chance and consequence binds us all our lives.”

Published on February 25, 2013 by Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D. in Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence