Back to top

Parental Influence Over Teen Risk-taking


I Introduction
II Adolescence: a risky time
III Parental monitoring: do you know where your children are?
IV How can parents encourage their teens to share?
V Do as I say, not as I do
VII Conclusions

--submitted by Kathy Blair, Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre and SMARTRISK

I Introduction

Young Canadians are a key target audience for SMARTRISK, a national charity dedicated to preventing injury and saving lives. Its No Regrets programming operates in high schools across Canada and works on a peer education model. The goal is for SMARTRISK-trained youth to help their peers learn to recognize and manage risks appropriately to prevent serious injury to themselves and others.

While SMARTRISK has focused much attention and resources on its successful peer education model, a growing body of research points to the sometimes overlooked importance of teenagers’ parents in the risk decisions they make. Thus, funded by State Farm, SMARTRISK is developing programming directed towards parents. As a starting point, Jayne Morrish, researcher for the Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre and SMARTRISK, recently prepared a literature review on the subject of adolescent risk-taking and the influence of parents, with a special focus on risky driving. This review includes findings about the keys to parental influence, suggesting there are important steps parents can take to increase the likelihood that their children will actually heed their advice.

Public health staff and community workers can use these findings to help educate parents interested in determining the best ways to positively influence their children’s decisions in a variety of health-related matters. Highlights of the literature review are below.

II Adolescence: a risky time

Adolescence is a developmental period marked by increased health risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviours. This marked increase in risk-taking usually does not occur at any other point in the lifespan and has been called one of the greatest behavioural changes that occurs within adolescence. [1] Adolescence is also marked by an increase in injury and mortality rates; in fact, mortality rates increase by 200% during this developmental period. [2] This rise in mortality has been related to adolescents’ increased involvement in maladaptive health risk-taking behaviours, such as risky driving practices, substance use, violence and unsafe sexual behaviours. [3] Maladaptive risk-taking, by definition, is pathogenic and dangerous, with little or no chance for secondary gain and refers to the risky behaviours that should be discouraged among most adolescents. [4] In fact, statistics on motor vehicle crashes, risky sexual behaviours, binge drinking and crime demonstrate that adolescents engage in more risk behaviours than any other age group, including children. [2, 3]

III Parental monitoring: do you know where your children are?

Early research in this area found that parental monitoring (tracking children’s activities, peers, beliefs and whereabouts) is an important protective factor against adolescent participation in maladaptive risk-taking behaviours. Much research concluded that greater parental monitoring related to fewer maladaptive behaviours among adolescents, and more adaptive patterns, such as higher academic achievement. [5, 6, 7, 8]

But what is it about parental monitoring that has this positive impact? Is it the fact that parents know what’s going on with their teens’ whereabouts, activities and peers? Or is it the actual active monitoring that allows them to know what’s going on? Researchers began to tease out the differences between active monitoring and knowledge and have concluded that in fact, it’s knowledge, not monitoring, that most strongly predicts adolescent risk-taking behaviours. [9, 10, 11] Laird and colleagues discovered that adolescents who perceived their parents as being knowledgeable about their activities were less likely to associate with maladaptive peers and less likely to be influenced by such maladaptive peers. [12]

The key contributor to achieving that knowledge, researchers discovered, was not in fact, active monitoring but adolescent disclosure. This refers to teens voluntarily disclosing information to their parents about their behaviours, whereabouts and friends, without their parents having to actively solicit the information.

IV How can parents encourage their teens to share?

Thus, parents who assume teens will just tune them out anyway need to be made aware that they do have the power to influence their children’s risk-taking behaviours.  Parents who are knowledgeable about what their teens are up to, who their friends are and the like, are less likely to have teens taking crazy, destructive risks, while teens who voluntarily disclose that information to their parents are less likely to be behaving badly.

Given the positive outcomes linked to adolescent disclosure, the key question then becomes, how do parents develop an environment in which their teens are willing to talk? Researchers Willoughby and Hamza [11] concluded there are three key parental variables that may help to foster a family environment where teens feel comfortable to disclose information and thus increase parental knowledge:

  • The first is establishing parental control, which involves setting reasonable restrictions and rules for teens’ activities and whereabouts (e.g., needing their parents’ permission to stay out late on a weekday evening). This also includes establishing ramifications for breaking these rules.
  • The second parental variable is promoting a warm relationship with their teens. Adolescents need to feel that disclosing to their parents is a safe and easy thing to do and must believe that their parents will listen and respond with sensitivity when they decide to disclose.
  • The third parental variable is scheduling family fun activities, which refers to having regular family activities that teens will want to partake in. This has been found to provide positive environments where teens feel comfortable and safe to talk with their parents.

V Do as I say, not as I do

In addition to creating an environment in which their children are more likely to disclose to them, a second key area parents have control over is the behaviours they model to their children. Adolescents model and mimic parental risk behaviours. Indeed, parental risk-taking behaviours and safety practices have been found to be key indicators of how teens will behave and how they intend to behave when they are adults. [13] Researchers have found evidence that there is an “intergenerational transmission of injury risk” and that families tend to have stable and similar rates of injuries from one generation to the next, with parents passing on their risk and safety behaviours to their children through modelling and possibly some genetic components. [13, 14]

It has been postulated that when parents do not practise the safety behaviours that they teach to their children they are actually teaching them that safety and the avoidance of maladaptive risk behaviours is something that only children should be concerned about. [15] Additionally, when parents engage in the behaviours they teach their children not to do, it sends the message that safety is not as important as it really is or that it is only important for children, and that older people possess greater experience and skills and therefore do not need to be concerned about safety. [13]

Indeed, it has been found that parents often neglect practising safety around their children. SMARTRISK’s 2009 study with State Farm Canada concerning teen driving trends indicated that this was especially true around parental driving behaviours.  Specifically, researchers in this study found that a great deal of youth said that they wouldn’t let their friends drive them home after drinking, but that they would let their parents because they trusted them and their decisions.  Additionally, results demonstrated that it was a common practice for youth to notice that parents/guardians did not practice the road safety behaviours they were teaching. When parents do not practise what they preach, they are negating the importance of the messaging and demonstrating to their children that with age they can become less strict on the safety precautions that they take.

VII Conclusions

This literature review has come up with findings that should be of interest to parents looking to influence their children. Creating a warm environment in which teens feel comfortable to disclose information and modelling appropriate risk-smart behaviours are keys to parenting children who are less likely to engage in maladaptive risk behaviour. Programs focused on parents should work to educate them on how much influence their words and actions have on their children’s current and future behaviours. An understanding of the intergenerational transmission of safety and risk behaviours is integral for programmers and parents.

For further information on the literature review this article was drawn from, contact Jayne Morrish of the Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre at SMARTRISK at 416-596-2710 or [email protected]. In addition, Jayne will present a webinar on the influence of parents on risk-taking for the OIPRC on Dec. 13, 2011. Please see for information on the webinar.


1  Kelley, A. E., Schochet, T. and Landry, C. F. (2004). Risk taking and novelty seeking in adolescence. Annals of the New York Society for Sciences, 1021, 27-32.  doi: 10.1196/annals.1308.003

2  Dahl, R. D. (2004). Adolescent brain development: A period of vulnerabilities and opportunities.  In R. E. Dahl & L. P. Spear (Eds.), Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol. 1021.Adolescent brain development: Vulnerabilities and opportunities (pp. 1–22). New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

3  Steinberg, L. (2004). Risk taking in adolescence.  What changes and why? Annals of the New York Society for Sciences, 1021, 51-58. doi: 10.1196/annals.1308.005

4  Baumrind, D. (1987). A developmental perspective on adolescent risk taking in contemporary America. New Directions for Child Development, 37, 93-125.

5  Barnes, G. M., Reifman, A. S., Farrell, M. P., & Dintcheff, B.A. (2000). The effects of parenting on the development of adolescent alcohol misuse: A six-wave latent growth model. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 175–186.

6  Mott, J. A., Crowe, P. A., Richardson, J., & Flay, B. (1999). After-school supervision and adolescent cigarette smoking: Contributions of the settings and intensity of after-school self-care. Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 22, 35-58.

7  Patterson, G. R., & Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (1984). The correlation of family management practices and delinquency. Child Development, 55, 1299-1307.

8  Pettit, G. S., Bates, J. E., Dodge, K. A., & Meece, D. W. (1999). The impact of after-school peer contact on early adolescent externalizing problems is moderated by parental monitoring, perceived neighbourhood safety and prior adjustment. Child Development, 70, 768-778.

9  Fletcher, A. C., Steinberg, L., & Williams-Wheeler, M. (2004). Parental influences on adolescent problem behaviour: revisiting Stattin and Kerr. Child Development, 75, 781-796.

10  Stattin, H., & Kerr, M. (2000). Parental Monitoring: A reinterpretation. Child Development, 71, 1072-1085.

11  Willoughby, T. & Hamza, C. (2011). A longitudinal examination of the bidirectional associations among perceived parenting behaviors, adolescent disclosure and problem behavior across the high school years. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 463-478.

12  Laird, R. D., Criss, Pettit, G. S., Dodge, K. A., & Bates, J. E. (2008). Parent’s monitoring knowledge attenuates the link between antisocial friends and adolescent delinquent behaviour. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 299-310.

13  Morrongiello, B., Corbett, M. & Bellissimo, A. (2008). “Do as I say, not as I do”: Family influences on children’s safety and risk behaviours. Health Psychology, 27 (4), 498-503.

14  Bianchi, A. & Summala, H. (2004). The “genetics” or driving behaviour: parents’ driving style predicts their children’s driving style. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 36, 655-659.

15  Morrongiello, B. & Lasenby-Lessard, J. (2007). Psychological determinants of risk taking by children: an integrative model and implications for interventions. Injury Prevention, 13, 20-25. doi: 10.1136/ip.2004.011296.