By Bridgett Ross, PsyD
With a wild glint in his eyes, your 11-year-old son jumps into the water. You nervously watch, hoping he doesn’t get hurt. You’ve taught him how to be safe, right? When you check your teenager’s climbing harness, she rolls her eyes with an unconvincing “I know what I’m doing.” You want to trust that she does, but you leave the conversation feeling anxious and irritated. Outdoor adventure comes with inherent risks. Will our kids make safe choices? How do you know you can trust them? Do they actually understand the risks? How will you really know?
UNDERSTAND “WHAT’S GOING ON”
Young brain development happens quickly and dramatically. While synapses rapidly connect, many remain unconnected, leaving the teen brain “under construction.” Consequently, your son may sound like a miniature adult one minute and incredibly immature the next. Many “reckless behaviors” result from impulses and desires reflective of normal teen development, and do not necessarily indicate a major problem. Even so, they still need guidance to stay safe.
Maggie Lyons Weller, a program director for Outward Bound California “typically approaches students and their behaviors from a ‘5 Basic Needs’ perspective (love/belonging, survival, freedom, power, and fun).” She continued, “The need to push boundaries or ignore rules might just be a response to feeling powerless or the desire to explore independently…Once you understand their need, you can set some safe perimeters for them.”
An understanding what’s going on serves several purposes. First, if you approach children as healthy and relatively normal, as opposed to dysfunctional and deviant, they are more likely to listen. They are also less likely to conclude “there’s something wrong with me” when you correct their unsafe yet developmentally appropriate behaviors. Third, understanding teen/tween development allows you to accurately assess whether serious problems actually exist.
TALK OPENLY ABOUT RISKY ACTIVITIES
Open communication about risky activities teaches teens to appropriately assess and manage danger. According to Dr. Paul Groenewal, a Sport Psychologist and founding partner of The Cor Group, “while teen behaviors can be sheer impulse, having open lines of communication may allow you to catch them as they begin to test their limits.”
Roger K. echoed the importance of communication. Roger’s now 20-year-old son grew up surfing, hiking, swimming, SCUBA diving, snowboarding, and sailing. In the teen and tween years, Roger learned the importance of ensuring that his son was “well-educated on the subject, from both an intellectual and a practical standpoint. So in all these activities, I made sure [my son] was well-schooled (both initial and in his continuing education) and had plenty of experience on ‘training wheels,’ then took calculated steps in his progression in degree of difficulty.” Whether parenting fearful or fearless children, clear information about the outdoor activity and a gradual progression in skill development fosters safe choices.
TEACH RISK ASSESSMENT
Teaching adequate risk assessment emerged as an important part of open communication.
Age-appropriate conversations about assessing and managing risk look different depending on the family and activity. They generally involve three components: (1) identify the risk (i.e., falling, strong currents, hypothermia), (2) take steps to minimize harm (i.e., helmets, life vest, safety checks, education), and (3) determine if you have the ability to participate in the challenge (i.e., previous experience or training, a plan to overcome obstacles).
Simple, short reminders to assess risk work well. For instance, Jack H., father of a 12-year-old, reminds his son “don’t set yourself up in bad situations or one that could lead to disaster or injury.” Jacob H, father of an 11-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl, tells his children “to predict the risk before it happens.” Such reminders can go a long way, especially when they follow open conversations about the risky activity.
Ms. Lyons Weller of Outward Bound also emphasized the importance of “explaining to teens and tweens the difference between ‘actual’ and ‘perceived risk.’” She expanded, “rock climbing may seem more dangerous than swimming, but if done with the proper knowledge, gear, and equipment is very safe. On the flip side, swimming seems harmless to a teenager who many not understand the more actual risks of hypothermia [or] strong currents.”
Collaborating about risk management will increase the odds that your child will make safe choices. According to Ms. Lyons Weller, “teens and tweens will almost always buck or question the ‘because I said so’ mentality from adults.” To elaborate, when swimming she stated that “it’s helpful to have them help you determine a ‘safe swimming’ area, rather than you just telling them.” Similarly, Dr. Groenewal recommends providing “your teen with some autonomy in the process. Let them educate you on what they enjoy about the activities and work with them to test different outlets.”
Roger’s experience reflects what many parents hope for when raising their tweens/teens. He stated, “I would participate in the learning process with him. We did these things together. I hiked with him and helped him learn the ins and outs of hiking. We got certified to scuba together. I rode with him (although) on my skis when he snowboarded. We learned to sail together.”
CREATE SAFE OPPORTUNITIES
In their interviews, Dr. Groenewal and Ms. Lyons Weller both highlighted the importance of “creating safe opportunities” for teens and tweens to enjoy risky activities. According to Ms. Lyons Weller, “the right outdoor space can actually provide teens and tweens a safe container to explore and feel that sense of freedom they are hungry for.” If a teen cannot exhibit enough impulse control to safely climb outdoors, then indoor climbing might be a better alternative. Better yet, a conversation about your concerns may lead to a collaborative alternative that leaves everyone happy and safe.
DEFER TO EXPERTS
While many parents look forward to sharing outdoor experiences with their children, some of us may have to hand over the reins if our role as parent interferes with the fun or safety of the activity. Dr. Groenewal shared, “teens are more likely to consider the advice (wear safety gear, lower the jump, don’t put the jump next to that cliff, go to the local skate park instead, etc.) given by the ‘expert’ over the ‘buzzkill parent.’” For many, this may be an exercise in humility or a source of disappointment, but it will likely set you up for years of future outdoor fun.
Normal teen and tween development can cause parents a lot of stress. Their natural impulsivity does not have to preclude these kids from outdoor activities. Understanding your child’s inner workings and collaborative communication about risk management can allow teens and tweens (and you!) to have fun and stay safe.
Bridgett Ross is a rock-climbing mom and psychologist in San Diego, CA. Four years ago, she started the Rock Climbing Moms (& Dads) to celebrate rock climbing parents and share tips on maintaining an outdoor lifestyle with children. To contact Bridgett or learn more about her psychology practice please visit Ross Psychology.