Risky behaviour in children

As children mature into adolescents, they tend to engage in more risky behaviours. Peer influence, curiosity or seeking independence and identity can influence an adolescent's decision-making. Poor decision-making can lead young people to act out behaviours which may cause potential harm.  

Not all risky behaviour is harmful. Positive risk-taking behaviour is an important part of developmental growth.

Brain development

It is known that the brain of an individual doesn't fully mature until their mid-20s. Therefore, adolescents are much more likely to make impulsive or risky decisions as they tend to spend less time considering the consequences.

During adolescence, peer influence on decisions and behaviours increases. As a parent or carer, it can be daunting when your child begins to rely less on you for guidance and answers. During this stage of life, it is normal for adolescents to act out behaviours which are rewarded with friendship, inclusion and support of a wider group. 

Drivers of risky behaviours

Children go through many changes as they develop into an adolescent. Physical, emotional, social and cognitive changes all contribute to different drivers and triggers encouraging experimentation of risk-taking behaviour. 

Risk-taking behaviour is usually a result of one or more of the following factors: 

  • seeking new experiences 
  • curiosity 
  • getting independence
  • developing their own identity
  • feelings of belonging  and community
  • new friendships and social circles. 

The peak of risk-taking behaviours

Risk-taking behaviour usually peaks around the mid-teenager years and will often become less common as they reach adulthood.

The most common risk-taking behaviours in adolescence include: 

  • Drinking at a risky level: binge drinking or developing alcohol poisoning 
  • Use or abuse of illicit drugs: substance use which can have a wide range of physiological, psychological or behavioural effects 
  • Use or abuse of other substances such as vaping products (E-cigarettes)
  • Dangerous driving: driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, speeding, negligent driving or driving under fatigue 
  • Risky sexual behaviour: unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners and unplanned pregnancy 
  • Violence: physical, verbal or sexual assault.

Young males are more likely to partake in risky behaviours as it can sometimes be mistakenly portrayed in peer groups as a sign of masculinity. 

Recognising warning signs

As a parent, you may have concerns about your child experimenting with risky behaviours. Knowing the signs of when a child may be taking part in risky behaviours can help to intervene early to provide education, guidance and support if needed. It is important to know some of these acts or signs can be a normal part of teenage behaviour.

Recognising subtle differences and changes in an adolescent's behaviour and having open conversations, will help to identify if there is cause for concern. 

Whilst the majority of the signs relate to alcohol and other drugs, there are other signs to look out for with dangerous driving, risky sexual behaviour and violence. 


Social behaviour changes may include:

  • withdrawal from the family or specific friends
  • recurring anxiety, depression or anger
  • a decline in school marks
  • secretive behaviour, secret language or codes when talking to friends
  • avoiding eye contact
  • being out in the community regularly for extended periods of time without a parent or carers knowledge
  • wanting to wash their own clothes or bed sheets more regularly
  • family prescription medication missing or in a different location
  • evidence of drug use around the house
  • an increase in requests to borrow money. 

Physical or psychological

Physical and psychological behaviour changes may include:

  • hallucinations
  • fatigue
  • constant irritability
  • vomiting
  • bruising or signs of physical harm
  • reduction in coordination or attention
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • headaches
  • enlarged pupils, glassy or bloodshot eyes. 

It’s important to note that warning signs of risky behaviour can present themselves in many different ways. Talking to your child about any concerns can be an easier way of understanding what they are going through and offering support. 

See the Alcohol and Drug Foundation Drug Wheel or Your Room’s A-Z of Drugs to find out more information. 

Visit Resources for parents and children to reach out to a health professional. 

Starting the conversation with your child

Talking to your child about risky behaviours empowers your child to understand risks and make informed decisions if they are ever in a risky situation. 

Children and adolescents are curious about their environment and often seek more information from friends or those around them when presented with something new. By having conversations early, you can manage the accuracy and narrative of the information they receive.

It is important to know what is age-appropriate information for your child. Starting conversations from an age when they are mature enough to understand these topics allows for ongoing conversations as they develop through their teenage years. 

At some point in their lives, a child or adolescent is likely to be exposed to risky situations, like drugs and alcohol. Understanding a child's or adolescent's view of risky behaviours is important as it can help guide conversations and ensure they are well-informed. 

Discussing risky behaviour topics can be difficult, consider the following when starting the discussion:

Choose an appropriate time, space and place

Ask your child when and where would be a good time to have a discussion.  This will help ensure your child or teenager:

  • has time to prepare any questions they may have rather than feeling like they are being put on the spot
  • is not distracted or thinking of other things
  • feels comfortable.

In your own home, between the end of school or before bedtime may be the best time for your family to feel comfortable.

Acknowledge risk

Acknowledge substances like alcohol, drugs and other addictive substances are present in the community and that risks and consequences exist.  

You may want to raise age-appropriate topics that you are concerned with and ask your child if they have any concerns.  Discussing situations where a child may be exposed will help navigate how they would manage the situation and what decisions or actions they could take to stay safe.  

It is important to also discuss the risks as well as legal and health consequences of substances like drugs and alcohol.  You could start by explaining that substances fall into three categories:

  • everyday substances, for example, coffee or prescription medication, that there are risks of addiction or withdrawals
  • legal substances, for example, alcohol or cigarettes, that have more serious legal and health consequences such as under-age drinking fines and lung damage
  • illegal substances, for example, cocaine or MDMA, which can have severe legal and health consequences, like possession fines and overdoses.

Keep the discussion open

These types of conversations can often be uncomfortable to start.  By allowing time for discussion on risky behaviours it demonstrates support and that it is important to discussion. If your child or adolescent is not ready to have a discussion, it is okay to stop the conversation and try again at a later time.

Provide your child with accurate information

Finding reputable sources of information is the best way to ensure your child or teenager is informed. Apply the CRAAP Test to any information you find online:

  • C - Currency of information
  • R - Relevance of information
  • A - Authority of the author
  • A - Accuracy or repeatability on other sources
  • P - Purpose of why the author is writing it. 

Empower your child with rights and responsibilities

Children and adolescents have certain rights and responsibilities. Your child should have confidence in the positive choices they make when out in the community and know their responsibility when making decisions around alcohol and other drugs.

Discuss peer pressure

Your child or teenager may encounter situations where they feel pressured by their peers. If children and adolescents develop strong values and respect for themselves, the decisions they make will more likely be their own than those of their peers.

Discuss consent

Teaching your child to respect themselves and others will help them understand their personal boundaries and handle uncomfortable situations. This relates to physical touch, verbal conversations or interactions online.

For more information see Emerging Topics - Consent and Sexual Health - Sexual consent

See Resources for parents and children for more information.

Conversations as your child develops

From 4-years old

A child may be exposed to drugs, alcohol or other risky behaviours younger than expected. The first time children are exposed to substances that may pose a risk may be through:

  • adults drinking or smoking at parties
  • media channels
  • having prescription and non-prescription medication in the house.

It is important to discuss use of medication with your child.  Teach children that medication is only to be used when given by a parent, carer or responsible adult. It is to be kept out of reach and only used as per the directions on the bottle. See Medication Safety for more information. 

Be clear, specific and calm when talking to young children about risky exposure to substances like alcohol or other drugs. If they ask further questions, it’s fine to keep the discussion going. They are trying to make sense of things in their world.  

From 8-years old

At this age, children can be asked their thoughts on risky behaviours such as drinking alcohol, violence or dangerous driving. Simple, open discussions at this age can help create honesty and reduce the stigma around some of these topics. If your child is not ready to talk about certain topics like alcohol or the effects of violence at this age, let them know you are ready to talk if they have any questions. 

From 12-years old

For this age group consider discussing: 

  • Health and safety consequences of their actions.  For example, explain that whilst driving with a new license may be fun and increase independence many responsibilities come with it. Dangerous driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs can have serious and often fatal consequences for them or the people around them.  
  • Legal considerations. Your child or their peers may be exploring new experiences such as experimenting with alcohol, obtaining a driver's license, or navigating relationships. They must understand their rights, responsibilities and the legal consequences of fines or potential jail time for certain risky behaviours.
  • Relationships and boundaries.  Discuss with your child about relationships, sexuality and feeling comfortable in their own body. This can help them navigate consent and puberty as they grow into young adults. 
  • Emerging topics.  Understanding current trends related to risky behaviours will better equip your child with the right knowledge to discuss with your child or teenager. 

Experts recommend discussing the dangers of vaping with children as young as 12 -years old to prevent early exposure.

All of these discussion areas are considerations for open conversations with children and adolescents regarding risky behaviours. Conversations will evolve as children age to suit their growth, development and environment.  

It is important for children to see behaviours and values that their parents and carers want to instil in them. Even though it is not a conversation, it is necessary to model good behaviour. If children see their adult role models engaging in certain behaviours that they have been told not to do, it can be confusing for them.

Language matters

When discussing risky behaviours with children and teenagers, it is important to make it age-appropriate and factual. This ensures there aren’t any overstatements or misunderstandings. For example, using correct names for body parts, alcohol and other drugs creates realistic expectations of their environment and prevents topics from becoming taboo.

Encouraging positive risk taking behaviours

Taking risks is an essential part of learning and growing up, both for children and adults. If children never take any risks, they may not develop the necessary skills they need to become successful adults. 

Encouraging positive risk-taking in children and teenagers can help them develop physical, mental, social, and behavioural skills, which are necessary for their overall development. 

Positive risk-taking can involve trying something new in various areas, such as:

  • physical activities including mountain biking or rock climbing
  • mental activities such as joining a public speaking course
  • positive thrill-seeking activities like learning a new skateboarding trick or going on a waterslide
  • social activities where they can join a sports team or an outdoor adventure group
  • behavioural or creative activities like exploring characters in a local drama group, school play or singing classes.

Resources for parents and children

Parents and carers: 

Children and teenagers: 

Last updated Friday 23rd February 2024