Lessons in rational risk assessment may hold the key to a happier, healthier life, and they can be learned in a few simple steps.
Even the most idyllic setting can become a danger zone when you’re in charge of a small child.
During the first few years, there is a chance of being hit by a car, falling into a pool or pond, or being bitten by a dog (usually the family’s own). Alcohol, drugs, violence, and untreated mental health issues can endanger the well-being of teens and young adults as they get older. Road traffic accidents continue to be a major concern. Then there are the invisible threats, such as air pollution, which are frequently difficult to detect and address.
Eventually, we must all be able to assess risk on our own, so that we can navigate the world safely without the assistance of our parents or guardians. We are far more likely to make rash decisions without those skills, which can lead to poor health, financial hardship, and even a criminal record.
What methods do children use to learn these lessons? And what can parents and guardians do to help their children navigate the world more safely – and perhaps learn a few tricks themselves?
We can finally answer these questions thanks to a growing body of literature devoted to risk psychology. Psychologists have now identified why children frequently fail to spot elemental dangers, why teenagers appear to be set on gambling their future for a few moments of thrill-seeking, and the educational barriers that can prevent people from learning to appraise risks rationally even as adults.
Each stage of development will necessitate a distinct approach. However, with the right guidance, it is possible to teach children and teenagers to develop high levels of “decision-making competence,” which will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of their lives.
“These skills that underpin our destiny can be taught,” says Joshua Weller, a risk-taking psychologist at Leeds University. “They can be nurtured and developed in a variety of ways.”
The floor made of glass.
Babies are born with surprisingly little innate knowledge of even the most fundamental dangers. As many parents have learned from terrifying experience, babies learning to crawl will attempt to push themselves off the edge of a bed or changing table without hesitation. According to research, a child’s fear of heights develops only through experience, as the child learns to pay more attention to their peripheral vision. Only after a few weeks of independent movement will they begin to show signs of anxiety, such as a racing heartbeat, when they see, for example, a sharp drop through a glass floor.
Young children, as social sponges, frequently learn to recognise danger vicariously by observing others’ facial expressions and body language. Chris Askew of the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, for example, showed eight-year-old children pictures of three unfamiliar Australian marsupials – the quoll, quokka, and cuscus – paired with either a frightened, a smiling, or no photo at all. In subsequent tests, they reported being more afraid of the animals that had been paired with the terrified faces, and they were much more hesitant to open a box that allegedly contained the animal in question. Further tests revealed that they were more likely to associate fear-related words with those animals for months after the experiment.
Recognizing a danger is not always enough to keep a child safe, because their developing brains may not be able to react quickly enough to the problem at hand. According to research, we do not fully integrate our senses, such as sight and hearing, until we are around 10 years old. As a result, it is difficult to determine the speed at which a car, for example, is approaching. Young children’s developing brains are also more easily distracted, which means they may simply ignore the potential danger.
When it comes to things like road safety, parents are often advised to establish routines, such as always looking left and right multiple times before crossing the street or waiting for the green man to appear on the traffic light. Repeated practise should result in these behaviours becoming habitual, so that the child can eventually perform them without needing to be reminded.
Adolescent guidance presents its own set of challenges. The adolescent brain is known to undergo significant structural changes, which appear to increase the sensitivity of dopamine signalling – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. This was once thought to make teenagers far more impulsive than younger children, as they actively seek out risky situations that could provide them with a greater dopamine hit.
However, laboratory experiments attempting to investigate the cognitive processes involved in risk assessment suggest that this is a grave injustice to teenagers. These studies are frequently in the form of gambling tasks. They could be given a multi-colored spinner with an arrow in the centre, for example. If the spinner lands on the correct colour, they have a chance to win $10 (£9), but there is a 50% chance that they will not win anything. Alternatively, they could accept a smaller but guaranteed pay-out of $5 (£4.50).
Contrary to popular belief, such studies show that, when compared to their younger peers, teenagers are more cautious, preferring small sums of guaranteed income over larger sums of risk. “When we give adolescents the option to avoid risk, they actually choose the safe option more often than children,” says Ivy Defoe, an assistant professor in the department of child development and education at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who recently published a paper reviewing scientific studies on adolescent risk-taking.
Defoe concludes from these findings that teenagers aren’t necessarily hardwired to rebel. It’s often just a matter of the circumstances. As they gain independence, they have more opportunities to act rashly, whether it’s attempting to shoplift, trying an illegal drug, joining a gang, having unprotected sex, or racing their friends on the highway. “Access to risk-conducive situations increases dramatically during adolescence and emerging adulthood,” Defoe explains, and it can be difficult to resist the temptations that this brings.
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