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Teens smoking.

A youth's decision to engage in negative risk taking may contribute positively to the development of his or her identity, according to U researcher Jodi Dworkin.

Making sense of a young person's behavior

By Kate Tyler

From eNews, September 2, 2004

From an adult's point of view, a college student's decision to spurn a quiet evening at the movies with longtime friends to attend a well-lubricated party with near strangers may appear impulsive and possibly imprudent--a classic case of negative risk taking. Yet in the context of the young person's identity development, "that decision could be entirely rational and even healthy," says Jodi Dworkin, a College of Human Ecology family development specialist. "If you're a parent, you might focus on the fact that it's a drinking party. But there's probably a lot more to it from the young person's perspective. It might be a chance to be social, learn about other people, learn about [themselves] in a new social situation, [and] see how people react to [them.]." Through detailed interviews with young people, Dworkin is delineating a boundary between dangerous risk taking and healthy experimentation. Focusing on "average college students, not the minority obviously into heavy risk-taking," she found that their everyday lives abound with risk-taking decisions--from whether to join a club or to experiment with different religions. What's more, even when it comes to those perennial parental bugaboos related to condoms and cocktails, Dworkin found that young people usually look before deciding whether and how to leap--and that when they do leap, they will reflect on their decisions. Differing Perspectives Young people are keenly aware, Dworkin says, that some of their decisions are bound to look dubious from where parents sit. And young people do use faulty reasoning and make bad decisions, just as adults do. But that doesn't mean that they are uninformed. "Indeed, their knowledge of these issues is often quite sophisticated," Dworkin says. For one thing, she found that young people do carry the values learned in their families--they're "constantly asking themselves, 'What would my parents think?'" On the whole, though, young people's decisions were mostly guided by something more powerful than information: their own experiences and direct observations. "They are not motivated just by knowledge," Dworkin says. "They need to learn by living," just as their parents did. Knowing that doesn't make a parent's job any easier, of course. How do parents monitor their kids? How do they know when they should be concerned? "The students I talked with had great ideas," she says. Among them: Parents should stay in touch by phone or e-mail. They should ask questions, trust the answers, and listen carefully--not jump in with lectures. At the same time, they should be alert for big changes, especially if their teens have a whole new group of friends, are performing poorly academically, or are always tired or sick. Dworkin advises that parents should recognize that reasonable risk taking serves a purpose. "We want children to learn to stand on their own feet," she says. "We should be open to the person each child is becoming. Be glad that they think for themselves, express views that are different from ours, even do things we wouldn't dream of doing. That's healthy. But we still need to pay attention." The challenge for both parents and teens is to try to work toward mutual understanding of what constitutes "reasonable risk." Adds Dworkin, "Look at it this way. If no one ever took a risk, no one would ever go to college, go out on a date, or apply for a job."

To learn more about this research, read "Reckless Behavior or Healthy Experimentation?" in M, spring 2004.