The Dangers of Challenges and Dares for Teenagers

If I had a dollar for every parent who has said in frustration to their teen “just because your friend dared you to do it – doesn’t mean you should have done it. I didn’t raise you to be a sheep!” then I’d be a VERY rich woman.

And with teens now having connections, not just with friends in their immediate circle, but access to the millions of teenagers on social media around the globe, the “dare culture” and the “world social media challenges” are even more worrisome for parents.

Challenges and Dares

It may not make any sense to an adult, but teens have been engaging in a variety of modern-day dares and challenges. Some are much more dangerous than others. Worrying challenges include the laundry pod challenge, the outlet challenge and the cinnamon challenge. Here’s a brief overview:

As parents, we need to be particularly careful to keep poisonous substances out of young children’s reach. A study in Paediatrics noted that 92% of children ingesting laundry detergent packets between 2012-2017 were under six years of age. More recently, it’s not just young children ingesting laundry liquid that parents need to be worried about. In fact, an increased number of older children are swallowing laundry pods in response to the Tide pod challenge – making teens very unwell!

The outlet challenge is where the plug of the phone charger is inserted into an electric socket. A coin is then inserted between the plug and the socket. This can not only result in a fire but it can also electrocute the person completing the challenge.

The cinnamon challenge is a seemingly harmless challenge. It involves teens filming themselves eating a spoonful of ground cinnamon in 60 seconds without water. However, an article in the American Academy of Paediatrics noted that short-term harms included choking, breathing cinnamon into the lungs and lung damage. Longer term there can be lasting lesions, scarring and inflammation of the airway.

Given the potential for harm, why do teenagers take on these challenges?

Surviving the Teenage Years

Parents often talk about “surviving the teen years” when their sweet young child becomes unrecognisable as an unruly, disrespectful and unmanageable teenager. I’ve heard parents say their children went to the “dark side” during the teens years. Thankfully, most also said that their teenagers eventually came back. However, parents need to take measures to help their children stay safe and survive the teen years unharmed.

The Dangerous Teen Years

Did you know that the teenage years are the most dangerous period of life for human beings? Risk taking is at its most extreme in the adolescent years. Teenagers not only respond to dares and challenges but also engage in other dangerous behaviours including:

  • Experimentation with drugs
  • Binge drinking
  • Attempted suicide
  • Self-harm
  • Reckless driving
  • Unsafe sex

And that’s just to name a few.

Why are Teens so Reckless?

While teens might look like young adults, and even be able to reason like young adults – they are far from being responsible adults. In fact, teen brains are “wired for risk taking” during the adolescent years.

Now, instead of confusing you with a whole lot of brain science, below are the simplified key parts so that you can get a general sense of what is going on inside your teenager’s head.

Teenage Brain – Really Simplified

In teenagers, the part of the brain that experiences emotions, motivation and pleasure is heightened – everything feels so good. This drives teens to seek pleasure and want to experience the euphoric “high” of risk-taking.

However, the “thinking” part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex), the part that manages impulse control, reasoning, planning and considering consequences, is not fully developed until the early- to mid-twenties for girls and the mid- to late- twenties for boys.

The adolescent brain drives teens to follow their impulses without the ability to curb those impulses and think things through – especially when they are with their friends. Teens feel an intense need to be accepted by their peers, which is often why they engage in risky behaviours like dares and challenges.

Laurence Steinberg PhD, an expert on adolescents, likens teenagers to a “super-charged car with no breaks!” Steinberg has authored numerous articles and books about teenagers including ‘Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence‘, a great resource for parents wanting to navigate the teens years successfully.

What Can Parents do to Keep Teens Safe?

There’s no “one” easy solution for parents and children to safety navigate the teen years. However, while there is no magic solution, we know from experience and the research of Steinberg and others that parents can make a significant positive difference in the lives of their teenagers by:

Focusing on maintaining a strong and open relationship with their teen. Making time to ask about their day and how life is going. Listening to understand, rather than judge, criticise and reprimand.

Understanding teenage brain development and that they aren’t fully able to manage their emotions, make responsible adult decisions. They also can’t fully foresee negative consequences.

Being empathetic, trying to feel what teens are feeling and experiencing – not from an adult perspective but a teenager’s view of the world. Repeat back what they say, to show you were listening and understand. Making it safe to talk to you about anything without being shamed or punished means they are less likely to hide things from you.

Being a good sounding board for teens to test their ideas. Offering options rather than telling them what to do and offering your solutions. We all know that teens don’t take being told what to do well and will probably do the opposite!

Being involved in your teen’s life but NOT micro-managing. Knowing where your teen is and who they’re with. While children are in your care, they will always need some guidance on expectations, limits and boundaries.

Finally, when it comes to dares and challenges, be clear that it’s about keeping your teen safe. Focus on HOW challenges are dangerous and WHY you have limits and expectations. Teens are more likely to comply when they don’t feel like you’re exerting control and want to stop their fun.

Most of all, give your teen lots of LOVE and endless amounts of PATIENCE (a sense of humour helps too). Rest assured, one day, your teen’s brain will mature and they will return from the “dark side”!


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Read more PakMag Tweens and Teens blogs here and Parenting blogs here.