Teenage risk taking: How to help as a parent


John o’learyToday our guest blogger John O’Leary  has a lot to share with parents about teenage risk taking.  With the Internet, teens are participating in all kinds of risky challenges so they can put the footage up on social media. We think John has some great tips that could help even some of us who don’t realize it. 

John is the author of the #1 national bestselling book, ON FIRE which has sold more than 120,000 copies and been translated into 12 languages. He’s also the host of the top 20 Live Inspired Podcast, which has been downloaded more nearly 1,000,000 times. He also has a website, John O’Leary Inspires.

Here is his perspective and advice on how to prevent teenage risk taking:

I recently  read that a 12-year old suffered tragic burns after lighting herself on fire as a result of the “Fire Challenge.” This internet dare began years ago, whereby the person being challenged is recorded as they pour a flammable fluid on their body, look into the camera, address the viewers and then purposefully light themselves on fire.

As absurd as this sounds, it is part of a broader culture that has evolved in recent years. Similar challenges have included choking, cutting, self-harm and jumping from moving vehicles. The goal boils down to this: copy what you’ve seen others do to garner attention on social media for yourself.

My own experience with teenage risk taking

As a child, I suffered burns on 100% of my body after modeling the behavior of some older kids in my neighborhood. I tried to pour gasoline onto a burning piece of cardboard in my parents’ garage, and the fumes from the 5-gallon barrel sparked a massive explosion and lit my whole world on fire. So, I know better than most the anguish endured not only by those who suffer burns, but also their entire family.

As such, I want to help ensure your kids aren’t the next victims of internet trends like the “Fire Challenge.” Here are three things that parents can do:


  1. Stop with the lectures; start with the questions.

Eight seconds. That’s how much time one study suggests a parent and a child’s eyes connect during each day. Yes, we’re busy and distracted. Yet in order to build a stronger bridge forward, our children must know we care deeply not only about the items on the to-do list, but about the litany of important issues far more difficult to see, verbalize, and discuss.

While adolescents long for independence,  their stronger desire likely is a sense of truly belonging. Connection to friends and acceptance from peers is important. But as the tides of youthful friendships ebb and flow, the foundational relationship with family, the safety of unconditional love, and the presence of a compassionate parent is paramount to belonging.

Consider striving to spend dedicated time, not just shuttling them to school or practices, but face to face, eyes to eyes, discussing their day. Use open ended questions. Don’t judge. Don’t try to fix. Just listen in such a manner they know you love them.

No, it won’t ensure they don’t act and make mistakes like all kids do from time to time. But there is no more important, liberating and life-assuring place to belong than at home. This foundation permits them to not only speak more openly about their life with you, but move courageously in a different direction than the herd.


  2. Stop enabling and start leading.   

Most parents wouldn’t allow their child to smoke cigarettes, participate in underage drinking, be bullied, bully others, or be tethered to a machine that causes addiction.

Wait, through some odd cultural loophole, the last one is no longer true. Reports show that kids are on their digital devices more than two hours every day. Digital devices provide hits of dopamine – a brain chemical that makes us happy – each time we get an update on our device. This literally gets us addicted to dopamine (and thus the action of engaging online) so we can get that hit.

This generation of kids have access to any website, the ability to share any information with any their friends, anywhere in the world, anytime they choose, with little to no consideration of how it might impact others. Yes, there is such a thing as too much freedom.

Consider establishing not only specific boundaries on what websites and apps can be accessed, but also mutually agreeable times when your child can – and cannot – have access to their phone. You can still provide them the technological connection expected during the age we live, but with a watchful eye increasing the likelihood they won’t have the unfettered access to information, potential risks or addictive realities that may harm them.


    3. Stop focusing them on them; start focusing them on others

In 2016, my book ON FIRE  was published which detailed my own very-near-death experience, recovery and long, difficult journey afterward. Soon after, I received an email from someone I hadn’t spoken to in decades. The note shared he’d just read my book and was brought to tears not only because of all I went through, but because he contributed to it. You see, the gentleman writing that note was one of the older boys who played with fire as I watched. Modeling his actions lead, in part, to the horrific burns I suffered. Although I never held him responsible, for thirty years, he had been haunted by the effect he had had on my life.  

We don’t live in a vacuum; our actions impact those around us. This truth must be shared with our kids. They exude an inherent bend toward being empathetic and outward thinking. Far from encouraging you to create rules to suffocate these natural tendencies, I’m imploring you to create dialogue, relationship and yes rules with intention to empower our young people to see the good alive within them, to understand the power their actions have and to stoke within them their ability to make a difference, do the right thing and lead forward in a positive direction.

With the hyperfocus many parents place on their teens’ school, sports, and future, consider shifting the conversation from what “it” means for them to how it impacts others. It will empower them to lean into those around them, leverage the strength of interdependence, and recognize their own potential in elevating lives – including their own.

These three things will empower your children to make better choices and lead more significant lives going forward. They also might not only save your child’s life from being ruined by some online challenge, but the life of someone looking up to them.

If you have questions for John on teen risk taking, share them below. We will ask him to answer them. 

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