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Adolescence and fear of the future.

Fear of the future can cause adolescents to resist independence.

Adolescents are on a collision course with the future.

Headed toward a harsh encounter with the responsibilities and realities of functional independence in the early or mid twenties, few young people are entirely ready when the challenge finally arrives.

Distance in age from independence profoundly affects an adolescent's attitude toward an adult future, the most salient and sobering part of which is the necessity find a job in order to support them selves.

In early adolescence (ages 9 - 13) the future doesn't seem to be within the young person's field of vision. So when parents, worried by the school achievement drop common at this rebellious age, ask, "Don't you understand that grades affect your future choices?" the adolescent truthfully answers "No."

In mid adolescence (ages 13 - 15) the future seems to be entirely concentrated on now. So when parents, impatient that the young person is often unable to see beyond the urgent need or want of the moment, ask, "Don't you understand that the future matters more than the present?" the adolescent truthfully answers "No."

In late adolescence (ages 15 - 18) the future seems to be for fun. So when parents, concerned by the young person's desire to experiment with acting more grown up, ask, "Don't you understand that the future is not simply a matter of playing adult?" the adolescent truthfully answers "No."

In trial independence (ages 18 - 23), however, the impending arrival of the future becomes a cause for concern. So when parents, disturbed by acts of irresponsibility at this advanced age, ask, "Don't you understand, what you do with your future is now entirely up to you?" the adolescence truthfully, and ruefully, answers "Yes."

Fear of the future for last stage adolescents is normal. The term coined by Alvin Toffler for his 1970 book, "Future Shock," aptly describes the age of anxiety that begins with trial independence.

When the older adolescent says, "I never thought independence day would come" he is reflecting a very mixed emotion -- about the long wait that is finally over and the daunting challenge that has suddenly arrived. So the curse of getting what the young person has devoutly wished for has come true: now he is starting to face life on her own.

Future shock at the end of adolescence is really fear of change, the change that independence brings. Change is just that process in life that moves us from an old to new, same to different, known to unknown circumstance or condition, continually upsetting and resetting the terms of our existence.

In trial independence, two fears can create significant anxiety about "the future." There is fear from loss of dependency on parents and family: "Can I manage without the old support?" That is a lot to let go and give up. And there is fear of individual responsibility: "Can I master the new self-sufficiency?" That is a lot to accept and assume.

For parents, there is a complicated dance they must do at this juncture because they have their own transition to make, letting go managing and intervening so the young person can learn from the inevitable errors of his ways. Impulsive choices that lead to unhappy consequences can be painfully but powerfully instructive. "I got tired of being criticized by my manager so I told her off! I learned this much; I won't do that again!"

It's hard for parents to hear about mishaps from bad decisions and broken agreements and not want to rush in and do something to extricate their son or daughter, or at least give vent to anxiety about the young person's lack of maturity.

But parents who encumber the older adolescent with help can enable dependency, while parents who frighten the older adolescent with worry can discourage daring independence takes. Better to respect resourcefulness and communicate confidence: "You chose your way into this difficulty and we believe you have what it takes to choose your way out."

As for helping the young person manage normal fears at this anxious age, parents can talk to their son or daughter about fear itself. They can explain how fear is part of our emotional awareness system that directs our attention to something significant that is happening in our world of experience. Just as grief responds to loss, frustration bridles at obstructions, and anger identifies violations (see 7/26/2010 blog), fear warns of perceived dangers.

Not only does fear direct our attention, it also energizes us to respond in some expressive, protective, or corrective manner. We alert ourselves, we take precautions, or we act to reduce the threat. Because the future is unknown, it can become the repository of many fears, particularly during trial independence. And because the future can be so filled with fears, it takes courage to proceed.

It's complicated. Exercising courage in the face of fear builds self-esteem; succumbing to flight in the face of fear reduces self-respect. However, not to avoid or flee certain danger can be foolish; while ignoring the warnings of fear can be self-destructive.

Like other emotions, fear can be a good informant, but a bad adviser. Thinking with one's feelings, in this case with fear, can impel self-defeating choices. So the young person in need of employment but afraid of rejection that a job application could bring, follows fear's advice to avert this danger and avoids applying for jobs at all. Future shock has him frozen with fear.

So what are parents to do. First, honor the fear. They can agree. "Yes, it's scary facing the future on your own, finding a job on your own, supporting yourself on your own, making your way on your own. But scary is not impossible; it's just scary because you haven't yet gotten started. Courage in the face of fear builds confidence. And even when you try and fail, effort adds to your experience and builds momentum (what you've tried before can make it easier to try again.)"

Then help the young person ask the four fear questions.
1)"What dangers is fear warning you of?" (Failure and rejection.)
2)"What is fear advising that you do?" (Don't make applications.)
3)"If you follow fear's advice, what will that get you?" (No job possibilities.)
4)"What would you choose to do if you were NOT feeling afraid?" (Keep applying to get some interviews.)

The antidote to fear of the future in trial independence is respecting fear's warnings, questioning fear's advice, and doing what one would do if one were not feeling afraid.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: Adolescence and self-esteem.

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