Why Do People Take Part In Risky Behavior?
By Sarah Fader
Updated October 16, 2019
Reviewer Dawn Brown
Adolescents typically exhibit risky behavior, mainly due to the fact that our brains are still developing until we reach age 25 or so. However, risk-taking can continue well into the twenties and thirties, and some people engage in risky behavior throughout their lives. Sometimes there are good reasons to take risk, but risks can also signal anti-social behavior and can cause permanent harm.
If you're struggling with risky behavior or if you know someone who regularly engages in risky behavior, read on to learn more about it. Understanding the problem is the first step toward finding a solution.
The Reasons Behind Risky Behavior
There are multiple reasons why people might engage in risky behavior. Some people develop these behaviors in childhood. Others might take risks following trauma or as a defense mechanism to avoid being hurt. Below are other common reasons for risky behavior.
Risk-taking behavior often begins during the teenage years. Teenage pranks can include everything from spray-painting the walls of rival schools and dropping cherry bombs in toilets to stealing Halloween candy and toilet papering front yards. Years later, friends may still laugh about these pranks, even if they caused property damage and emotional distress. Although they know better as adults, it was all in good fun at the time.
Teenagers may also skip school, take a vehicle for a joyride, or drink illegally without feeling the least bit of shame, but when they grow up, they may not want their children to follow in their footsteps. What was simple social bonding many years ago becomes unacceptable behavior down the road. As adults, these individuals are no longer so self-absorbed and exclusive. They become aware of the world around them and how their actions affect the emotional wellbeing of others. They no longer wish to destroy personal or public property because they feel a degree of responsibility toward society.
These changes in perspective usually occur as adolescents enter their twenties. At this point their brains are nearly completely developed, and they awaken to a new awareness of the world around them. They become curious about others and very social. Even young people who felt unpopular and isolated during their teenaged years usually develop a core group of friends at this age. In short, they are bonding with others, and their desire for risky behaviors diminishes.
Patterns of Risk
Most people have healthy social skills and social lives by the time they reach their thirties. Studies indicate that even youth who have been home-schooled develop well-socialized computer skills, even if they remain awkward in a physical environment. However, not all adolescents make a successful transition into a healthy adulthood. Anti-social behaviors such as burglary, theft, and violence can become a problem, and high-risk behaviors, such as alcoholism and drug abuse, can become lifetime habits.
Early indicators of a troubled youth can often appear as young as age six or seven. Maladjusted children may be playground bullies; they may also be cruel to animals or steal from other children. Similarly, early indications of a self-harming child can be found in children who habitually pick at scabs, bite their fingernails down to the cuticle, chew on their lips, or bite themselves. Adolescents who self-harmed as children may take their injuries to the next level as they grow. They may start cutting or burning themselves, drive recklessly, or engage in unprotected sex. Left unchecked, anti-social and self-harming patterns of behavior can persist in adulthood.
It's worth noting that children who isolate themselves at an early age are not necessarily at high risk for anti-social or self-harming behavior. Children can be uncomfortable when they're in unusual environments, and they may have a difficult time understanding the responses of others who do not share their family values or traditions. In these cases, they may choose to isolate themselves because they are confused.
Studies have also found that some children are born naturally shy. They may cling to their mother far longer than average, learning to talk later and preferring imaginative play to the company of others. These children tend to acquire friends slowly and painfully. In adulthood, they might exhibit an introverted personality, though they can be quite friendly once the ice breaks.
On the other hand, some people seem to be born risk-takers. As children, they are the ones who take the double-dare to sled down the tallest, steepest hill. As thrill lovers and adrenaline junkies, they push the limits on where they can go and what they can do. There haven't been any conclusive studies that explain why some people begin exhibiting risky behavior earlier than others, but thrill-seekers will say it's in their genes.
When it comes to behavior, there's a lot of debate around what's shaped by nature and what's shaped by nurture. Multiple children born in the same household may be treated equally, but only one may exhibit early high-risk behavior. On the other hand, people who grew up with risk-taking parents will have a broader view of what society considers risky. Therefore, they may engage in high-risk behaviors simply because it feels normal to them. For example, some people who volunteer for the military or the police force or people who choose to be heavy equipment operators, firefighters, and divers may not perceive their occupations as high risk. For them, it may simply be a family tradition, even if a family member has previously suffered harm as a result of one of these occupations.
Others see a calculated risk with an end goal-the common good of society. Their early childhood may have been spent exploring caves, rummaging around in abandoned buildings, and picking their way through construction sites, especially if their parents saw this as normal behavior. As adolescents, they may have been the leaders of some pretty bold groups who explored what they could do with the skills they learned in childhood. When they become adults, they may attract other risk-takers who love a good adrenaline rush and who channel it into healthy pursuits. Although they may exhibit high-risk behaviors, their boldness benefits society.
However, sometimes risk-taking doesn't stem from family traditions, exposure to high-risk jobs, or an apparent genetic disposition for taking risks. In these cases, there may be something else at play. As adults, some individuals may exhibit rash behavior, such as neglecting to use proper safety equipment or testing the limits of the machinery they are using. They may disguise their impulse to self-harm with carelessness in a high-risk environment. Impulsivity may also be demonstrated in reckless behavior toward others, causing near-accidents and costly damage to the workplace. Repeatedly endangering others and the workplace in a high-risk job can be a sign of anti-social behavior that needs to be addressed in therapy.
People take part in risky behaviors for many reasons. Often, they can be traced back to early childhood, when the individual in question encountered various heroes, dare-devils, and rebels. Children tend to idolize the risk-takers in their social groups. As they grow older and the need for self-identity becomes stronger, they are easily persuaded by the strongest and boldest among them.
Risk-taking can have a positive effect. Young risk-takers often have a family history of risk-taking individuals. They may have been seafarers, pioneers, soldiers, or adventurers. What others within a group see as a risk, they may consider normal. People in leadership positions may encourage others to perform daring acts for the safety and wellbeing of the community.
Harmful risk-taking behaviors include risks that endanger others, such as drinking and driving or unprotected sex, and behaviors that cause self-harm, such as failure to abide by safety regulations.
Risk-taking can begin in early childhood as one of the symptoms of a self-harming personality disorder or early anti-social activity. It can also be a part of what the child sees as a normal environment. It's not uncommon for risk-taking behaviors and impulsivity to continue well into the twenties and even into the thirties. Risk-taking behaviors that were firmly established in childhood are more likely to continue into adulthood.
Some adolescent risk-taking behaviors, such as alcoholism and drug experimentation, can turn into a lifelong addiction. These behaviors may be detected early among children who show a tendency for self-harm and among those who show hostilities and aggression to others.
If you find yourself taking a lot of risks and you're concerned about the consequences, start by trying to understand your behavior. Writing about your thoughts and actions in a journal can help you learn more about your motives.
If your behavior is causing you stress, consider breathing exercises. These are a great option because they're easy to learn and implement into your life. They can also offer you clarity when you're thinking about taking a risk.
Exercise Is another good option for you. When you're considering a risky behavior, go on a walk instead. Use this time to clear your mind and think about what you're doing. Don't let your impulses take over.
How BetterHelp Can Help
If you or someone you know regularly engages in risky behavior, get help. You can get affordable online therapy at any time. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp are experienced at dealing with issues like these and are ready to help you. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"I signed up for BetterHelp at a time where I felt my lowest. I was matched with Lenora and she has been nothing but wonderful. She has helped me learn how to control my emotions and identify when I am at risk for losing control. She always seemed to genuinely care about my feelings and well being. Because of her, I feel more confident and in control of my life. I am truly so grateful that I was matched with her as my counselor."
"Pat has been and incredible advocate for me! She checks in and cheers me on and has given me advice and tools to deal with professional and personal/familial conflicts that left me doubting myself. She's been instrumental in helping me discover and unpack learned behavior I wasn't even aware of and helping me understand and establish healthy boundaries with people in my life. I can undoubtedly say that I've been feeling better about myself and more comfortable with the way I walk through the world in large part thanks to her."
Understanding risky behavior can help you prevent it. If you're consistently engaging in risky behavior, it's okay to ask for help. With the right tools, you can live a healthy life that's still exciting. Take the first step toward a happier life today.