help-teen-through-unknown

What is your teen asking you about the future? Do you have answers?

“What am I gonna do about school and soccer, Dad?” my 14-year-old son asked me. I didn’t know. I’d been asking myself the same questions for weeks and didn’t have any answers. It feels like new information comes out every day that undermines my decisions. Everything feels tentative. The future feels like a collection of shreds and patches. 

The last few months have left the foreseeable teen future uncertain. Your teen may be feeling a lot of anxiety: What will school look like? Will I be able to get a part-time job, play sports, play my favorite instrument in the band? What about prom and graduation?

And don’t forget their favorite part of school—seeing their friends. There’s so much unknown for them to process.

Don’t forget, they are old enough to wonder about your adult future and the family’s future. You may feel secure about your job situation, your finances, the health of family members—and something like divorce may be totally out of the question. This doesn’t stop your teen from worrying about those things.

All of these unknowns can easily translate into anxiety, stress, and depression for your teenager. (They can for us adults, too.)

When it comes to the important things in life, we all prefer certainty to uncertainty. But our adult brains are developmentally better suited to live with some uncertainty than our teen’s brain is. Their brain is still developing and processing so many unknowns (that they are invested in) can be particularly difficult for them. How can we help them?

[Read this blog that describes what is happening to teens developmentally.]

1. Model The Behaviors And Attitudes You Want For Your Teen

  • Self-Care: Tending to your physical health and emotional health.
  • Mindfulness: Deep breaths. Self-awareness. Focus. 
  • Critical Thinking: Decisions based on the most reliable information.
  • Optimism: “We are going to come out on the other side even stronger.”
  • Resilience: “We are going to take it one day at a time as a family.”
  • Gratitude: “We still have a lot to be thankful for…”
  • Service: “How can we help others who are struggling?” 

These are all things that your young adult needs to navigate uncertainties they will encounter as future adults.

2. Acknowledge When The Future Is Unknown & When You Just Don’t Know

We want to have answers for our teens and they often expect us to have them. It can be tempting to try to “fake it” or give the answer we think will make them feel better in the moment. Besides being disingenuous, in the long run, it will undermine their confidence in you. You don’t want to be seen as a source of false hope and misinformation.

It is totally appropriate (and honest) to admit it when we don’t know. Saying something like, “I don’t have enough information yet to confidently make a wise decision about that,” doesn’t undermine your trustworthiness and reliability; It enhances it. Your teen can relax (hopefully) and know that when you do make a decision it will be based on the best information and what’s best for the family.

3. Become A Student Of Your Teen 

Be on the lookout for the ways your teen might be struggling with anxiety and stress and depression. A very talkative teen may become quiet. A very quiet teen might become talkative. A normally social teen may become withdrawn. A teen that normally keeps to themselves might suddenly become a social butterfly. Look for any changes in their normal behavior. 

Keep in mind that sometimes teens deal with difficult emotions in unhealthy ways. Be on the lookout for outbursts, disrespect, risky, or harmful behavior. Watch their eating and sleeping habits. As you address their behavior, be sure to address what the real issue may be underneath it.

4. Be Open And Create Space For Your Teen To Express Their Anxiety

Teens will often “show” you when they are struggling before they will “tell” you they are struggling, but there are things you can do to keep the lines of communication open:

  • Make sure your teen knows you have an “open door” policy and that they can talk to you about anything, anytime.
  • Take advantage of car rides and other times you are alone with your teen that don’t feel like you are angling for a “big talk.” Teens often open up when you are doing something else, like cooking or watching television.
  • It’s okay to ask questions like, “How are you feeling about school this year?Then practice active listening skills.
  • Don’t “freak out” at what you hear. Keep that poker face.
  • Don’t ask a million questions, probe gently, empathize, and be a good listener.

5. Recognize When You Are Out Of Your Depth And Get Your Teen Help

Anxiety, stress, depression, and anger are significant and often complex problems—especially in the lives of teens. It is totally appropriate and necessary for you as a parent to recognize when you have reached the limits of how you can help your teen. Don’t stop there. Reach out for help. Contact a counselor.

The unknown is, well, unknown. It is normal to experience fear and anxiety concerning the unknown. There are lots of things that your teen cares deeply about that are just flat out up in the air at the moment. Don’t feel bad that you can’t make the unknown “knowable” for your teen. Model how to face the unknown, be there for your teen, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until the unknown becomes known.

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