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Written by Keryn O’Neill, MA PGCertEdPsych, Knowledge Manager 

To better support rangatahi, it helps to understand what’s going on in their brains, their bodies, their social circles, and their world. There is much discussion about adolescent risk-taking behaviour. Research has provided some insights to help us understand what is going on during this time of rapid change, and why we might see rangatahi trying new things and taking risks.


Adolescence is a time of transition from childhood to adulthood. Rangatahi become gradually less reliant on their parents and evolve into independent members of the community.1 Adolescence begins at puberty and involves many changes – physical,
psychological, emotional and social, as well as changes in the brain.2 Changes also occur in the world around adolescents. For example, where they spend their time, and the expectations others have of them can undergo change. 

The end of adolescence is marked by moves toward adult social roles (e.g. living independently, working) and legal status (e.g. being recognised as an adult by law.3 ) These social roles can differ across cultures. 

To successfully make this transition towards independence, rangatahi need to learn many things; they need to explore their environment and have new experiences.

First we will look at some of the brain changes taking place that may affect behaviour and risk-taking,
then at the context for these changes.

Brain development in adolescence

Rangatahi undergo important changes to both the structure and function of their brain. Two key structural changes are (1) the synaptic pruning of brain connections that haven’t been used, making their brains more efficient and more like adult brains, and (2) the myelination of axons, which enables the brain to send messages more quickly and efficiently.5 This means that during adolescence grey matter (cell bodies of neurons) decreases, and white matter (myelinated axons) increases, across the brain.6

Connections within and between brain regions also change, contributing to new ways of thinking and behaving.7 While during childhood connections are largely among nearby brain regions, in adolescence regions further away from each other become more interconnected. When many brain regions function at the same time it is called “functional connectivity”.8 These functional networks support more complex thinking and behaviour than any one brain region could alone.9 It’s not simple though – adolescent brain changes unfold differently in different areas of the brain. And different regions reach maturity at different ages.10 For example, during adolescence some areas of the brain (e.g. the nucleus accumbens) will decrease in grey (unmyelinated) matter while other areas will increase in grey matter before reaching a peak and then decreasing (e.g. the amygdala).11

One factor often thought to influence risk-taking in adolescence is the fact that different neuro-transmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, begin to affect the brain differently.12 Neurotransmitters are the specific chemicals that carry electrical impulses from one neuron to another.13 Dopamine levels increase in the striatum in adolescence, becoming stable by early adulthood. In the past, this has been narrowly understood to explain impulsivity and risk-taking in adolescence, but research now also indicates increased dopamine is important for memory and learning.14 Greater activity in the striatum and adolescents’ sensitivity to reward help rangatahi to learn from and remember their experiences.15

In some situations rangatahi are more sensitive to rewards than adults – risk taking is more exciting for them.16 It helps to understand this. But reward is only part of the picture. Studies have now found that when rangatahi face risk, there is more activity in several areas of the brain (ventromedial prefrontal cortex, anterior insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and striatum). This indicates that adolescent risk-taking is not only influenced by the potential rewards (which might be the case if there was increased activation only in the ventral striatum).17 We are increasingly understanding the other factors which come into play at this age.

To really understand what’s happening for rangatahi we need to consider these brain changes in context. We must take into consideration “the inter-connectedness of the individual and their environment.”18 Although a lot is changing within rangatahi themselves, this is only part of the picture in understanding their development. Their environments and relationships with others are also changing during adolescence, and these can influence the nature and extent of any risk-taking. As with any behaviour, risk-taking does not occur in a vacuum, with many factors influencing its occurrence.

The brain and behaviour: caution needed

Our understanding of adolescent brain development has grown considerably in recent years, shedding further light on the opportunities and challenges of this stage of development. Having knowledge of what’s going on in the brains of our rangatahi can help us to better understand them and their needs.

However, it’s important to keep the limitations of this knowledge in mind. For example, that “there is not a 1:1 correspondence between a particular brain region and a particular behavior.”19 Brain regions do not work in isolation, instead, behaviour results from many interconnected areas of the brain.20 Links between brain activation differences and mental processes, or real world behaviour are not proven.21 Rangatahi behaviour is influenced by sociocultural factors as well as biological maturation.22


Risks have two main features. These are (1) “uncertainty” and (2) “the potential for an undesirable outcome.”23

The type of risks that adolescents might take can be divided into several different categories. Writing about risk-taking often focuses on socially unacceptable behaviour including having unprotected sex, binge drinking or violence,24 however, this is only one aspect of it. Some researchers separate risk-taking into either positive or negative categories. Positive risks are those which are constructive and socially acceptable; examples include auditioning for the school play, trying out for a sports team, learning to drive, or helping a peer. Negative risks are dangerous and/or illegal, for example trying alcohol or other drugs.25 Positive or adaptive risk-taking tends to be associated with sensation seeking, whereas negative or maladaptive risk-taking is characterised by poor impulse control.26

Risk-taking can also be classed as either impulsive and reactive, or intentional and reasoned. Contrary to what many might think, much adolescent risk-taking is intentional and planned in advance.27 

It’s worth remembering that “focusing solely on negative risks reinforces a deficit-based perspective of adolescence that discredits young people’s potential to be thriving, contributing members of society.”28

Sensation-seeking & impulsivity

Two concepts related to adolescent development are sensation-seeking, and impulsivity.

Sensation-seeking involves interest in new or exciting experiences and seems to peak during adolescence.29 A study of people aged 10-30, across 11 countries, found that on average sensation seeking was at its highest around 19 years of age.30 Other studies found it peaked earlier, between 15-18 years.31

Impulsivity is the tendency to act in ways that are less planned or thought through.32 Its two main components are “acting without thinking… (and) impatience, or the tendency to prefer a sooner, smaller reward, instead of a larger, later reward”.33 Impulse control usually improves gradually from childhood into adulthood and is associated with the development of the prefrontal cortex.34 In other words, impulsivity lessens over this time. Regardless of age, there are individual differences in impulsivity.35

Theories on risk-taking

A number of theoretical models have been developed to better understand risk-taking in adolescence. Two prominent models are the ‘dual systems’ and the ‘maturational imbalance’ models. While there are differences between them, both view the interaction between increased reward sensitivity in adolescence, and the more slowly developing cognitive control system, as resulting in a temporary period of increased risk-taking.36 In these models, rangatahi are wildly excited by risk-taking, but not yet always able to ‘put the brakes on’. This thinking has informed much of the discussion in recent years, however, many now consider that this doesn’t provide a full explanation of the factors affecting adolescent risk-taking.37

There have been a number of criticisms of these models. In particular, the idea that this imbalance occurs for all rangatahi has been questioned, given the large individual differences among rangatahi, both in terms of their biological development, and their behaviour.38

The Lifespan Wisdom model views adolescent risk-taking as necessary to develop into adulthood.39 This model separates adaptive risk-taking (characterised by sensation seeking) from maladaptive risk-taking (characterised by poor impulse control).40

The “Developmental Neuro-ecological risk taking” model suggests that as rangatahi get older they are exposed to more risky environments. As whānau, school, and the law allow them more independence they face increased risk and harder decision making. In this model this contributes to increased risk-taking as rangatahi naturally explore their environment; a factor that other models have usually neglected.41 In this view, it is (1) risk exposure and (2) individual differences in self-control which influence risk-taking behaviour.42

Taken together, differing theories show that risk-taking is influenced by many factors and can’t be described by a simplistic explanation.43 Ways of understanding rangatahi that include their environment “paint a fairer picture of adolescents, not just as individuals with unfinished brains and raging hormones, but as active learning agents who are exploring a new and uncertain world.”44

Individual differences

Research on adolescents has often focused on ‘averages’ across groups of young people, which can hide important individual differences in development.45 Despite some similarities, rangatahi develop in different ways, with large individual differences in both their brain development and behaviour, as such “there is no average adolescent”.46 Genes and environment both play a role in these differences.47

Similarly, there are huge individual differences in risk-taking behaviour among adolescents.48 Not all rangatahi take risks, and for those who do, this will happen in some situations and not others.49 For example, individual differences in sensitivity to rewards combined with different experiences during development (e.g. a supportive or a chaotic home environment) influence the way rangatahi approach risk taking.50 Gender makes a difference too, with risk behaviour, on average, higher among young men than young women.51 Psychological and neurobiological differences as well as differing opportunities contribute to individual differences in risk-taking behaviour.52

Risk-taking that is concerning occurs in only a minority of rangatahi; typically those who have had poor impulse control and behaviour difficulties since early childhood.53 Such differences seem to continue through into adolescence and early adulthood,54 influencing outcomes in many areas. Increased dopamine activation means that these differences in cognitive control can get bigger during adolescence.55

Negative risk taking typically decreases in adulthood, due to both the greater responsibilities of adulthood as well as an improved ability to manage emotions and behaviour.56

Rates of adolescent risk-taking behaviour vary across different countries, despite some aspects of psychological development being universal. This indicates that the environment influences rangatahi behaviour, and risk-taking “is not the inevitable by product of the period’s neurobiology.”57

Environmental factors influencing risk-taking

Increased independence. Adults typically grant rangatahi more freedom and this is found across many cultures.58 Parents may provide less monitoring and by later adolescence young people may be living independently. Policy and law also influence the opportunity for adolescents to engage in different types of risk-taking behaviour, for example, the legal age at which alcohol can be bought.59

The presence of their friends.60 Some types of risk are more likely to occur when rangatahi have friends present, for example they are more likely than an adult to have a car accident when carrying a passenger.61 They are also more likely to try alcohol and other drugs with friends, compared to being alone.62 The influence of friends can also be a positive one, for example if their friend discourages them from risky behaviour.63

Drinking alcohol. Alcohol affects decision-making abilities and the ability to regulate behaviour.64 A study of young adults found that the combination of peers and alcohol affected brain connectivity during risk-taking tasks leading to brain activity that was less mature; the researchers suggest the effects of alcohol and peer presence would be even stronger among younger adolescents.65

Lack of sleep. Very common among rangatahi, not getting enough sleep is associated with more risk-taking, including alcohol and other drug use, violence, unsafe road behaviours and sexual risk taking.66 When rangatahi don’t have enough sleep, studies have found that they are more likely to behave in risky ways, and they have less connectivity between the emotional and decision-making areas in their brain.67

Stress. Even among adults, stress increases risky decision making. Adolescents face many stressors including physical changes, conflict with others, and academic demands.68 Negative emotional states, such as feeling threatened, influence risk-taking behaviour.69


Adolescence is a time of many changes, physically, socially and emotionally. There are significant changes to the brain. Physiological changes, including those of the brain, do not occur in isolation and the context and purpose of these changes is important to understand.

How an adolescent develops through this time depends on many factors, including their genes, prior experiences and relationships as well as the experiences and support available to them during

Risk-taking in adolescence is influenced by many things,70 including:

  •   Social and biological changes of adolescence
  •   Large individual differences in both adolescent brain development and in risk taking behaviour. In particular, some have pre-existing difficulties with impulse control which might intensify in adolescence
  •   Situation specific factors (e.g. being with friends, using alcohol, lack of sleep, heightened emotions)

Risks themselves can vary along several dimensions, including:

  •   Adaptive or maladaptive
  •   Reasoned or reactive 

Rangatahi are undergoing incredible changes and are predisposed to explore and learn about their world. For some, this can result in dangerous behaviour, but it can also lead to positive prosocial and creative activities.71


  1. Dahl et al., 2028, cited by Crone & van Duijvenvoorde, 2021
  2. Galván, 2021
  3. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021
  4. Saragosa-Harris et al., 2022
  5. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021
  6. Galván, 2021
  7. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021
  8. Steinberg, 2016
  9. Galván, 2021
  10. Somerville, 2016
  11. Wierenga et al., 2014, cited by Foulkes & Blakemore, 2018
  12. Steinberg, 2016
  13. Steinberg, 2016
  14. Galván, 2021
  15. Davidow et al., 2016; Peters & Crone, 2017
  16. Edelson & Reyna, 2023, p.109
  17. Galván, 2021
  18. Ferschmann et al., 2022, p.170
  19. Galván, 2021, p. 860
  20. Galván, 2021
  21. Bjork & Pardini, 2015; Edelson & Reyna, 2023
  22. Saragosa-Harris et al., 2022
  23. Duell & Steinberg, 2021, p. 1
  24. Duell & Steinberg, 2021
  25. Crone & van Duijvenvoorde, 2021
  26. Khurana et al., 2018
  27. Maslowsky et al., 2019; Edelson & Reyna, 2023 
  28. Duell & Steinberg, 2021, p. 2 
  29. Steinberg, 2016
  30. Steinberg et al., 2018 
  31. Edelson & Reyna, 2023
  32. Shulman et al., 2016
  33. Edelson & Reyna, 2023, p. 108
  34. Casey et al., 2008; Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021 
  35. Casey et al., 2008
  36. Crone & van Duijvenvoorde, 2021
  37. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021 
  38. Foulkes & Blakemore, 2018; Khurana et al., 2018
  39. Romer at al., 2017, cited by Galván, 2021
  40. Khurana et al., 2018
  41. Defoe & Romer, 2022
  42. Defoe, 2021
  43. Duell & Steinberg, 2021, p. 4
  44. Ciranka & van den Bos, 2021, p. 10
  45. Foulkes & Blakemore, 2018
  46. Galván, 2021, p. 858
  47. Foulkes & Blakemore, 2018
  48. Blakemore, 2018; Galván, 2021
  49. Uy & Galván, 2020
  50. Crone & van Duijvenvoorde, 2021 
  51. WHO, 2014, cited by Duell et al., 2018
  52. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021
  53. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021; Romer et al., 2017
  54. Mischel et al., 1989, and, Eigsti et al., 2006, cited by Casey et al., 2008
  55. Khurana et al., 2018
  56. Duell & Steinberg, 2021
  57. Steinberg et al., 2018, p.12
  58. Duell & Steinberg, 2021; Willoughby et al., 2021
  59. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021
  60. Shulman et al., 2016, p.114
  61. Andrews et al., 2020
  62. Andrews et al., 2020
  63. Andrews et al., 2020
  64. Casbon et al., 2003, cited by Sherman et al., 2019
  65. Sherman et al., 2019
  66. Short & Weber, 2018
  67. Robinson et al., 2018, cited by Galván, 2020
  68. Uy & Galván, 2020
  69. Cohen et al., 2016
  70. Sherman et al., 2019
  71. Icenogle & Cauffman, 2021


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