Courage is not the absence of fear; rather, it is skillful action to live with the fear.
School’s out for the summer. While students are taking a break, it’s still a time of transition: Whether middle school students are gearing up for high school, or high school seniors are preparing to enter into the adult world, each transition carries an element of uncertainty. Although changes like these can mark exciting times, they are often accompanied by feelings of apprehension and anxiety.
Uncertainty can bring feelings of distress and anxiety to the surface. When left unaddressed, these emotions can be detrimental to a young person’s life. Living in a constant state of anxiety can interfere with one’s ability to function effectively, making it impossible to self-soothe or challenge oneself. As adults, it’s all too easy for us to be dismissive, but whether these fears seem logical or real is truly beside the point. As adults in the lives of young people, we play a critical role: we help them navigate uncertain terrain and support them through transitional times. This does not mean eradicating fear. Rather, it’s about helping young people accept that fear and anxiety are normal and with the right tools, fears can managed and worked through. The truth is: everyone gets scared and we all feel anxiety, but it’s what you do with that fear that has the potential to make all the difference!
Unfortunately, fear is not relegated to a specific time of year, it’s ongoing and ever present. We live in a world that makes it difficult to escape fear-inducing conditions. In many cases it is our own self-limiting thought patterns that create anxiety. Maintaining cultural biases, viewing the world through an “us versus them” paradigm, holding onto anger, constantly sitting in judgment and nurturing hatred—all of these patterns set the stage for storms of inner and outer turmoil. As these qualities ripple through society, fear escalates and prevents us from dealing with the real issues at play. What if I’m not good enough? What if he hates me? What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t make friends? These insecurities are natural, but neglecting to acknowledge and deal with them allows them to burrow into our minds, stunt personal growth, and impede our day-to-day lives.
Fear is a primal, basic, human emotion. Often, the idea of fear is more anxiety-provoking than the actual situation. Fear of self, fear of others, fear of space—it all boils down to one thing: uncertainty or fear of the unknown. No matter where you focus your anxiety, it’s important to recognize it and see it for what it is: a normal human emotion. It is only after you take this step that you can actually deal with the situation at hand.
Teens have the difficult task of simultaneously navigating the social scene while still figuring out who they are and what they want on a personal level.
When it comes to teens, the fears are wide ranging. Some fear failure, others fear the future, and many fret over what might happen due to past actions. Teens have the difficult task of simultaneously navigating the social scene while still figuring out who they are and what they want on a personal level. This imbalance leads to an array of common, very age-appropriate, anxieties. How can I go to that party if everyone is judging me? What if no one asks me to the dance? It’s not cool to like math. For some teens these fears become debilitating and prevent them from engaging with others. According to Martin Covington, Senior Research Psychologist at the Institute for Personality and Social Psychology at UC-Berkeley, a fear of failure is directly linked to one’s self-worth, or the belief that you are valuable as a person. As adults, it is up to us to encourage young people to explore these innermost feelings, acknowledge the ways in which fear may be holding them back, and set an intention to keep approaching the fear, each time it arises. Again, this isn’t about eradicating anxiety. Some of us never overcome our fears, and that’s OK too. It’s about harnessing learning strategies rather than allowing fear to stop us in our tracks.
5 Ways to Help Teens Work with Fear
- Name it to tame it! Have a discussion with your teen and ask what fears are occupying their minds. Really listen, without judgment, to their perspectives. Your demonstration of understanding and support will go a long way toward creating trust. Don’t be deterred if, initially, these conversations are met with a strong reaction, as often times fear can cause defensiveness or trigger vulnerability that can cause a teen to “shut down.”
- Discuss how fear works. It’s helpful for a teenager to understand the mind/body connection and the mechanism behind fear. You can share the fact that when fear sets in, the heart races, the brain releases cortisol, and the body experiences fright, flight and freeze. These are very normal reactions. Part of the conversation is to help teens recognize that when experiencing fear (real or imagined), the mind is clouded by stress and judgment gets clouded. It’s about having a strategy in place when fear does arise can be helpful to regain composure.
- Take 5 mindful breaths. When adrenaline kicks in, and feelings of fear arise, suggest taking five intentional breaths. The idea is to engage a breathing practice like TAKE FIVE to help put the brakes on fear, hyperactivity and reactivity. A breathing practice creates a short enough pause to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and slow things down. Having a strategy like a short breathing practice that your teen can tap into as a resource can help them navigate moments of anxiety.
- Meet fear with acceptance. Fear is a fact of life: The key is acknowledgement. The idea is to share your fears with your teens so that they can cultivate a quality of acceptance that fear is part of our common humanity. When they learn to acknowledge their fears, they can use this information to help them communicate, manage, and grow. Over time, building a better understanding around anxiety and/or unpleasant experiences can support them in taking “baby steps” to navigate through the fear.
- Reinforce their goodness. Young people need to understand the power of thoughts and feelings. We can get lost in self-limiting thoughts with complete disregard for our positive qualities. Help put things in perspective by sharing strengths, weaknesses, and wins. It’s constantly focusing on the negative and being mired in ruminative thought loops that holds us back. Mindfulness helps us build an awareness of these thought patterns, and with practice, we can create a different (and healthier) relationship to our minds. Learn from Dr. Dan Siegel and read Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. Siegel explores exciting ways in which understanding how the brain functions can improve the lives of adolescents, making their relationships more fulfilling and less lonely and distressing on both sides of the generational divide.
If we can help teens understand that they are not alone or defective, we can support them to move them from feelings of isolation to feelings of acceptance. Fear is here to stay—it’s our thoughts around it and our relationship to it that must change.