Novelty-Seeking and Risk-Taking


by Danelle Spence



“The only thing worse than taking risks in adolescence is NOT taking risks” — Daniel Siegel, MD


The above quote is one of my favourites from Daniel Siegel, a very influential adolescent psychiatrist. I repeat the quote often and I truly believe in it. Teens neurologically need to seek novelty, adventure, and all things new. Their brains get stronger hits of rewards when they seek out novel activities, especially ones that are exceptionally different from what they are used to.

The point of this write up is to encourage parents to allow their adolescents to take some non-catastrophic risks. They need to make mistakes and learn from them – this ultimately nurtures their ever-changing brain. I’m not talking big, dangerous risks, like getting into cars with reckless drivers or dropping out of school in grade 10 to try acting in NYC by themselves. I am talking about encouraging them to try out for the team you know they aren’t going to make or letting them take that class with the teacher you know you they won’t like.

If you have read my other posts, you will see that I find teens today being less resilient, less prepared for the pitfalls of life, less capable of being independent and generally less robust. Not all, of course. But I think parents think about their own mistakes and therefore want to <naturally> keep their child from experiencing the same pains. But what this accidentally does, is it keeps them from truly learning from their own mistakes and changing their brains for the better. We all know that experiential learning is the BEST type of learning for young developing minds. They will be ok – in fact, BETTER for it.

This leads to a theme I see so often: The Fear of Failure and the Fear of Being Vulnerable. There is an amazing TedTalk by Brene Brown on YouTube that speaks to this so beautifully <google it!> We all, (not just our teens) have to let ourselves be vulnerable. We have to tell people when we are scared, let our loved ones know we are overwhelmed sometimes, or just cry with someone we trust.  The more we feel – with others –  the better we feel.

Action steps:  Teachers need to model making mistakes, and display real examples of being imperfect. Counsellors need to share their inner critics, flaws, and personal stories of struggle. Parents need to be open to hearing their child is scared, then be comfortable, comforting them – sharing stories of their own failures and learning. The more we fail, then get comfort from our loved ones, the more prepared we are for real-life failures. Our brains will say: “Hey, I’ve seen this before, and I’ve handled this before”. It won’t feel as scary or helpless, then if they had to experience failure for the first time, on their own.

On a personal note, I will always remember the time I ran out of gas on the highway heading out to Okotoks. This had happened a few times before, and my dad would come out with a Jerry can and save me. I didn’t learn a thing from that, obviously, because it kept happening. The very last time I ever ran out of gas, was the time my dad said, “Oh really… again? Well, good luck with that!” And proceeded to hang up. I sure did learn that time! I was uncomfortable, a little scared, slightly irritated, but SAFE – and boy did I learn. Today I still push it with an empty-ish gas tank from time to time… but I will never run out of gas again. Had my dad kept rescuing me – I can imagine I would still be sulking in a stalled car on the side of the road, sometimes –  at the age of 41.

So please, my own personal anecdotals, my 22 years of experience working with teens and their parents, has proven to me how important this is. Allowing our kids to take small risks, ease them out of their (and your!) comfort bubble, accepting and encouraging small failures – is one of the best things you can do as a parent.

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About the Author

Danelle Spence

Danelle Spence is a Registered Psychologist with a passion for helping teens effectively manage emotional distress and helping their parents’ understand the complex and developing teenage brain.

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