The world held its breath when 16 year-old Abby Sunderland (above) attempted to be the youngest person to sail around the world. She didn’t make it. Her boat’s mast was seriously damaged when she encountered high winds and rough seas in the Indian Ocean. She was rescued two days later. Now we learn that a 14 year-old Dutch girl, Laura Dekker, is making plans to finish what Abby was unable to do, hoping to complete the voyage before she turns 17. Initially blocked by her mother and the Dutch courts, her plan has been given the green light.
Sunderland’s parents were criticized for allowing their daughter to undertake such a dangerous mission. And even though Laura’s mother tried to halt her daughter’s trip, many believe that a parent’s right to say “no” should be enough to rein in a teen’s risky behavior. Yet some parents not only allow a child to take risks, but also support them. This past May, 13 year-old Jordan Romero (above), became the youngest person to climb Mt. Everest. His father and his father’s girlfriend accompanied him on the journey.
A generation that grew up watching extreme sports on TV and playing aggressive video games is attacking life with a vengeance. And, as Abby and Laura prove, girls are as turned on by extreme sports as boys are. These young people are defying their parents, gravity, and the elements, as they engage in daredevil extreme games—this time for real. Besides circumventing the globe in a sailboat or climbing Mt. Everest, their pursuits include: skateboarding, often at speeds exceeding 50 MPH; snowboarding, now an Olympic sport; luge, both street and winter; and rock climbing. We also have kayaking, white water rafting, bungee jumping (above), sky diving—the list goes on and on.
Even young people who are not engaging in extreme sports still play traditional sports, like soccer, above, tougher and rougher than in the past. Injuries, some serious, are oftentimes the result. What’s a responsible parent to do?
First, parents should understand that adolescents and risk-taking go hand in hand. The challenge is to encourage good risks and discourage bad risks. Sports, even extreme sports, allow adolescents to focus their energies on positive risk-taking and avoid negative risk-taking like drinking, drugs, and unsafe sex. Young people believe they are invincible and will never get injured. Parents need to take safeguards against those injuries. We have some advice:
Do your homework. No matter the sport your child selects—mainstream or extreme—learn everything you can about this activity. If it’s a team sport, brushing up on the rules will help you guide your child and increase your own appreciation of the game. Make sure your child uses appropriate protective equipment. If needed, seek outside instruction, either in a class or one-on-one with an expert.
Consult a physician. Your child should be having an annual physical. During this visit, talk with your child’s pediatrician about the sports your son or daughter will pursue in the coming year. Ask about any precautions your young athlete should take, including proper warm-ups and cool downs. Adolescents are still growing and eating well and getting enough sleep are important, more so for those pursing sports. (Watch for eating disorders, particularly in sports where body type and weight is a factor). There are some activities that should be avoided, such as heading the soccer ball consistently. Your child may listen to advice from a doctor before she listens to you so having this health professional take an active role is critical.
Consider your child’s skill level. Laura Dekker was born on a boat, spending the first four years of her life at sea. She first learned to sail at age six and has done solo-sailing in the North Sea and the Wadden Sea. So, while her plan to sail around the world alone seems foolhardy, she is not a novice. Before your child attempts a sport, understand her skills and limitations. Ski patrols frequently rescue skiers and snowboarders who venture onto black diamond (difficult) trails after one or two lessons.
Examine your own biases. Whether you are athletic or a coach potato, put aside your own opinions when you consider what your child wants to do. If you have never been a strong swimmer, the idea of your son going white water rafting probably will scare you. Conversely, if you were a star tennis player in college, you might wonder why your child prefers skateboarding. Mothers of girls, in particular, are often wary of their daughters pursuing extreme sports. With the proper precautions, you can ensure your child’s safety.
Take injuries seriously. Even with protective equipment, proper warm-up, and expert instruction, injuries still happen. If your child says he’s okay, you should still have the injury checked out. Any blow to the head, of course, could be a concussion and requires evaluation by a medical professional. With some sports, the injury may develop over a period of time with overuse. Strengthening muscles through exercise can be a deterrent.
Laura Dekker apparently ran away from home, so upset was she over her mother’s efforts to prevent her from sailing around the world. An adolescent determined to pursue an extreme sport will find a way to do so, no matter how many obstacles a parents places in the path. And, remember, once a child turns 18, parental approval doesn’t apply. Working with your child to find a safe, enjoyable way to pursue a sport is the way to go and can result in some extreme results.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of Parenting 911: How to Safeguard and Rescue Your 10 to 15-Year-Old from Substance Abuse, Depression, Sexual Encounters,Violence, Failure in School, Danger of the Internet, and Other Risky Situations.