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Not invincible: Alaska teens pursuing risky outdoor recreation need guidance

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published September 16, 2014

Most of us don't have to think too hard about the risks we took as teenagers, especially within the realm of recreation. Too fast, too far, and too much was the mantra my friends and I seemed to employ, whether that meant riding our horses backward or ripping down ski slopes, helmetless heads exposed to the elements. Safety during the teen years meant a list of rules to memorize, not practice. It's a wonder any of us escaped to adulthood.

Sometimes it's difficult to remember that kids between ages 13 and 18 are still children, growing and adapting to environments and maturing bodies that change day to day. Teen years are stressful on everyone, and while most parents want to foster independence in their youngsters, striking a healthy balance between risk and consequences becomes an exercise in patience requiring nerves of steel.

Alaska is full of rich opportunities for teens to explore the outdoors. From mountain biking to skiing, ziplining to kayaking, studies show that kids who grow up with access to outdoor activities are more likely to reap the benefits of physical fitness, including a greater attention span, and more effective coping skills. While it doesn't take much to encourage many enthusiastic youngsters toward bigger and better outdoor challenges, it is another thing to make sure he or she approaches them safely.

'Confidence and competence'

Physically, teenagers' brains are constantly developing. Far from complete when babies leave childhood behind and approach adolescence, a so-called "finished product" does not appear until the second decade of life. The brain's cerebral cortex -- where most of our heavy thinking occurs -- develops much later, undergoing a tremendous period of growth to assist in the transition to adulthood. It's no surprise, then, that teens often present challenges within the realm of safe behavior simply because their brains haven't yet matured in areas related to decision-making, logic, and impulse control.

However, teenage years are an excellent time to learn new and exciting things, said Katie Butler, a nurse practitioner at Alaska Center for Pediatrics in Anchorage.

"Just the act of trying an unfamiliar activity can lead to long-term confidence and competence in teens," Butler said.

It can be frustrating for parents to juggle myriad opportunities for experiencing high-adrenaline activities with a desire to keep kids safe, especially since some teenagers consider themselves invincible.

Jennifer Aist, mother of four children ages 11 to 17, says it's been a long but profitable process of education combined with a hands-on opportunity to help her oldest children take charge of their choices.

"Since my kids were very little, we have worked to outfit them with outdoor skills they will carry through adulthood. They have amassed more backcountry skills than most adults, but the teenagers are still working on decision making. We walk through possible scenarios all the time, make sure they have the right equipment and training. But still, we can't think for them."

Aerial acrobat

Aist's son Joey, 15, is a budding backcountry skier and aerial acrobat, preferring flips to schusses at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. Perhaps wise beyond his years, Joey puts a lot of thought into those fancy moves.

"I'll usually watch how other kids land for the conditions, before I start doing backflips," he says. "I don't have a problem saying, 'not today.' But then, I practice a lot too."

Butler agrees with the concept of repetition and practice, citing Alaska's wide range of classes, seminars, and clubs that provide teens with adult guidance while teaching proper technique.

"Educational sessions are opportunities for kids to try new things under the guidance of a mentoring adult," she says. "And, it's a great way to introduce expectations for safety, equipment use, and training requirements."

Thanks to puberty and a developing brain, teenagers perceive risk differently than adults. Both Aist and Butler suggest parents take active roles in the outdoor lives of their children.

Whether attending a backcountry avalanche class together or planning a vacation with friends that encapsulates an older child's natural need for an emotional and physical rush, parental support can be key.

"We stay involved in our kids' lives," says Aist. "But ultimately, while we can guide them, equip them, and counsel them, we come to realize they are going to do what they are going to do."

Tips for parents to help their teens succeed in Alaska’s outdoors

Understand the physical changes in your teen. Butler recommends parents read "Building Resilience in Children and Teens" by Kenneth Ginsburg.

Look for specialized opportunities. Several Alaska programs provide teenagers with outdoor experiences tailored to age and expertise. Alyeska Resort, for example, recently expanded its already-popular mountain bike trails, opening a kid-friendly run down Glacier Express. The resort offers lessons for new trail riders, and tours so cyclists can become comfortable with the mountain's layout and features (www.alyeskaresort.com). Winter is on the way, and Hilltop Ski Area's Hotdoggers program teaches snowboarding skills and safety for kids ages 6-16. REI offers seminars and hands-on classes for the entire family to become familiar with such outdoor recreation as camping, biking, and backcountry safety (www.rei.com/stores).

Clearly state expectations. If a lesson or class is mandatory before allowing a teen to engage in an outdoor activity, research the options. If you want a phone call at the beginning and end of an outing, let them know. Parents may also want to pose questions about route, companions, and gear.

Help teens create systems for organization. Gear lists, smartphone contacts, and simple procedures for packing and unpacking mean your teen is less likely to forget critical pieces of equipment or clothing.

Allow kids to engage in some risky activities. Discuss safety, decision-making, and situational awareness. Allow teens the freedom to make mistakes, but follow up with your perspective -- without judgment.

Erin Kirkland is Alaska's family travel expert, the author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family-friendly travel and outdoor recreation. She is based in Anchorage.

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