Once children become teens, they’ve likely grown out of most of their childhood fears (at least the ones about monsters under the bed and cooked broccoli). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t afraid of anything.
Fear is an innate human characteristic. We’re born with a “fight or flight” response that never goes away (unless you happen to be SM, the woman whose fear response is essentially inactive thanks to a rare condition called Urbach-Wieth disease).
In fact, adolescence can be an exceptionally fearful time in a person’s life. As a person becomes more aware of their surroundings, more knowledgeable about the dangers of the world, and more focused on meaningful relationships, it’s no wonder that they would start to develop fears that are less about “sleeping without a night light” and more about “being alone forever.”
Of course, teenagers are notoriously difficult for adults to empathize and connect with, which is a problem for parents or caregivers who want to help teens navigate their fears in a healthy and mature way.
It’s hard—but it’s not impossible.
Common teenage fears
Just as certain fears are more common among children, teens tend to struggle more with certain fears than with others.
Fear of failure
This is a big one for teens, and who can blame them? After all, they face daily pressure to succeed. They need to have good grades, so they can get into a “good” college, so they can get a “good” job, so they can have a “good” life. When you feel like your life is literally hanging in the balance, you’re definitely going to feel some fear about “messing things up”.
Fear of change/the unknown
Again, this one is understandable in teenage years. Moving away, changing schools, or even finding a new group of friends can be extremely intimidating in adolescence. Fear of the unknown fits in here as well, as students may be afraid of what adult life has in store for them.
Fear of letting people down
No teen wants to be a disappointment to their parents. They don’t want to be labeled a “bad friend.” They don’t want to be the one on the team that misses that game-winning shot. This fear can have serious negative consequences if teens push themselves too hard for the sake of making someone else happy, rather than discovering innate self-confidence.
Fear of rejection
Whether it’s not being asked to the prom, or finding out that your friends went to the movies without you, rejection is a terrible feeling. For many teens, being accepted and loved is hugely important, and anything that threatens that feels terrifying to them.
Fear of missing out
So popular that it’s been granted its own acronym (FOMO), the fear of missing out is a big one for teens today. Teens want to feel included, for sure, but they also want to feel involved. You don’t want to be the one at school on Monday who knows nothing about the party last Saturday.
Fear of embarrassment
In a world where social capital reigns supreme for teens, embarrassment, or anything that might jeopardize their social status, is frightening. Make one wrong move, and you could be a viral video. Say the wrong thing, and you could alienate the popular crowd. Embarrass yourself on a date, and you might never date again. No one likes to feel embarrassed, but with high stakes like these, embarrassment is something that teens actually fear.
How to help teens overcome fear
One encouraging thing about teenage fears is this: they’re very similar to adult fears. Adults want to be accepted, loved, included, and successful, and they want to live stable, happy lives.
Keeping those similarities in mind, here are some tips for helping teens overcome fear.
Empathize, don’t sympathize.
Teens don’t want you to feel sorry for them, intellectually. They want you to try to understand them, to the point that you feel what they feel. This is the (simplified) difference between sympathy (conceptual understanding) and empathy (meaningful, emotional connection and understanding. For a more in-depth look at the difference, watch this.)
When you make an effort to empathize, you’re drawing a deep, real connection between you and your teen. You’re helping them to see and feel that you understand, that you take their problem seriously, and that you care. There’s a level of risk here, you have to know and feel the issue deep enough that it impacts you in a way that you understand it. You need to “be with them” emotionally. When they don’t feel so alone, they’re likely to feel less afraid.
Communication is key in any relationship, and a parent or caregiver’s relationship with their teens is no exception. Unfortunately, most people presume that communication between parent and child breaks down once the child reaches adolescence.
Still, it’s important to try to keep those lines of communication open, so that your teen feels comfortable telling you when they’re feeling afraid. One way to do this is through self-disclosure. By talking about what your teenage experience was like, you might be able to ease those communication lines open gently, so that your teen feels more comfortable sharing their own thoughts and feelings with you.
By sharing experiences I had in my youth and the impact and consequences of those moments, my three teenage children have had a point of reference to draw on. As they navigate through similar scenarios, knowing their Dad has been there and has wisdom to share, can be helpful as they pave their own trails.
Empower them to find their own solutions.
One clinical psychologist explains that in her work with teens, many of them simply want her to tell them what to do. They want her to make the decision for them, so they can just stop worrying about it.
While this may be tempting (especially for someone like a parent who sees a clear “solution” to the teenager’s problems), it won’t help your teen in the long run. In fact, it could very easily have the opposite effect, communicating to teens that they are not capable of solving problems on their own, and that you have no faith in them (tying into those fears of failure and letting people down).
By helping them find their own solutions, you are showing them that they are capable of facing and addressing their fears. Make sure you present failure as an opportunity for growth, rather than a sign that they “made the wrong choice.” Success is at the far side of failure.
Remind them that fear can be useful (as long as it is healthy).
If humans had no fears, our species would probably not exist anymore. Fear can be useful at times. It may, for example, keep a teenager from cheating on a test, walking along a cliff or from trying drugs. It’s important for teens to know that they should respect their feelings of fear, rather than ignore them or try to talk themselves out of it.
That said, even though fear can be healthy in this respect, it can also be harmful. If fear is inhibiting a teen’s activities, dictating their behavior, or simply putting too much pressure on them, that fear is likely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.
An adult might think it’s “silly” for a teen to be afraid of losing a friend or missing out on a weekend activity, but if it’s important to the teen, it should be important to the adult as well.
Don’t dismiss your teen’s fear, and don’t judge it as unworthy, silly, or unfounded. Listen and empathize. Be a safe place for your teen.
Teach (and model) thoughtwork.
Fears stem from thoughts. If you can change your thoughts, you can have greater control over your fears. In many cases, armed with new thoughts, you can wipe fear and doubt out entirely.
If you can help a teen learn how to design their thoughts in a healthy, productive way, you can help them overcome their fears, from the inside out. Not only will this help them handle their teenage fears, but it will also serve them well into adulthood.
Things like the Egg framework and positive affirmations can be very powerful for teens. Introduce them to these concepts and work together to incorporate them into both your lives. After all, your example is your most powerful teaching tool.
When (and how) to get outside help
As much as you want to help your teen, there are times when the problem is beyond your ability to solve. Just as some adults need outside help managing their fears, teens also sometimes need professional assistance to avoid living their lives based on fear. Many harmful actions can result from common teenage fears, and it’s important to be aware of them.
Some indicators that your teen may need outside help include:
- Eating problems
- Increased defiance/acting out
- Increased sexual behavior
- Decreased academic performance (usually accompanied by other problems)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Drug use
- Drastic change in mood
Seeing your teen experience these things can be terrifying. Remember that these behaviors don’t mean that your teen is “bad.” More often than not, your teen just needs help managing their fears and the pressures of daily life.
A school psychologist can be a great resource when you think your teen might need to see a professional. You can also talk to their doctor for further recommendations.
Fear is a part of life—but it’s an unpleasant one. Help your teen learn how to overcome their fears and you’ll set them up not only for a happier adolescence, but a happier life.
Design.org features several tools, including our Egg assessment, that can be useful in helping teens and adults learn how to design their thoughts and overcome their fears. Learn more here, or take our free, science-based assessment to get started with our personalized coaching program.
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