Adolescence and Fearful Excitement

Fear and fun: what's exciting can be scary and what's scary can be exciting

Posted Nov 25, 2013

Adolescents can have a contradictory response to adventure which can be very exciting and very scary at the same time, particularly when they attempt something new, which they have to do a lot as they grow—daring to face an unknown or harder experience.

So you might see a teenager caught in an approach/avoidance conflict when, for example, they can’t wait to start their driver’s license training, but they keep putting it off, unable to get themselves to get it scheduled. They can dread what they want and want what they dread. Excitement and Fear so often contend against each other, yet many times can also go hand in hand.

For example, consider a high school junior who constantly procrastinated when it came to getting started on her homework and class projects. Why would she delay so long? Why was the stressful last minute the time she habitually chose to begin? According to her parents, the young woman just lacked the self-discipline to address and accomplish her school work in a timely manner. And they found themselves repeatedly feeling anxious when she struggled to meet deadlines.

However talking to the young woman, a different dynamic came into play—deliberately using delay to generate a sense of crisis. “I work best under pressure,” she explained.  "That’s when I feel my best and do my best. Otherwise the work is so mind-numbing and boring, and nothing feels worse than that!” So she selected the strategy of procrastination to motivate herself. The trick was making boring work exciting by making it challenging to do. The self-management challenge she created might be called "Put it off/Pull it off." How late could she wait and still get her assigments done? Fearful excitement allowed her to generate focus, attention, interest, meaning, purpose, and motivation—at least for the moment. And it may have beaten other ways of managing boredom like indulging or escaping herself in unhealthy ways. 

Next, consider how a teenager might mix four degrees of exposure to fearful excitement.

First degree is SPECULATION. The young person simply likes to think about and talk about experiences of fearful excitement, with no apparent interest in actually doing them. A common example, sometimes disturbing to parents, is when their teenager chooses a very high adventure friend and they fear the son or daughter is going to be led into that risky way. In a lot of cases, what their teenager just wants is to listen and hear from a seasoned informant what the wild side of life is really like. They want vicarious learning about what is fearfully exciting, not the actual experience.

Second degree is SPECTATING. Here, for example, the young person wants to watch all manner of frightening, horrifying, sensational entertainment to desensitize them to all the mayhem of life in the dangerous world beyond childhood. This is also where the “fun of a good scare” comes in, sitting with a group of friends, safely stimulating excitement without risk of actual harm, seeing how much horror they can tolerate with their eyes and ears wide open. Parents wrestle with this exposure when deliberating the age at which to allow their adolescent to start watching R-rated movies, particularly the sensational depictions of graphic violence that is portrayed. From what I’ve seen, the parental walls against this kind of viewing usually start to come down around middle school, when adolescent interest is on the rise.

Third degree is SIMULATION. For example, violent video/computer games are designed to be wonderfully scary and exciting. Although proponents would argue against this, there is a huge psychological difference between passively viewing violent entertainment and actively participating as a player in it, between watching one character shoot another and acting in role of shooter in an interactive game. Simulation is a very powerful training tool for shaping behavior (which is why it is so widely used) because how one acts in a “game” does influence how one feels and thinks, reacts and solves problems, and does take one though practice scenarios, in this case of committing deadly harm. This doesn’t mean a young person will necessarily act aggressively from practicing pretend aggression in a video game; but it does mean aggressive feelings and thoughts will likely be aroused as fantasy acting out occurs. Parents just need to be sure that the teenager adequately differentiates between fantasy play and harmful reality, while they also should remember that seeking simulated danger is a lot safer than going out and looking for the real thing.

Fourth degree is PARTICIPATION. Desire for dangerous risk taking for the challenge and thrill of it seems to be wired into some young people more than others, and when it does parents can have an anxious time: “Still in high school but impatient to move on, what will our hurry-up daughter want to experience next?” Or you get parents describing their adventurous 12-year-old son in these terms: “It’s not that he knows no fear; it’s that fear arouses his curiosity to try whatever excites his interest.” When parents have a child, and then an adolescent, who is drawn to scary excitement, they must arm the young person with all the precautions they can foresee, teach predictive responsibility to anticipate dangers from risky choices, and help her or him learn self-preservations skills that any close calls, lucky escapes, and serious mishaps have to teach.

So what does fearful excitement add to adolescence? A variety of contributions come to mind. Danger can be an attractor as well as a deterrent. Being scared is also being thrilled. A really good scare can be really entertaining. The other side of fear is fascination. Fear is never boring. Fear stimulates excitement and focuses attention. Many new experiences are partly scary. Exciting things can be scary to do. Scary things can be exciting to do. Courage is the gift of facing fear.

Finally, there is this. In growing up, life is risky and awareness of risks is often detected by fear. Fortunately, fear can cause excitement, and when it does, like the daunting transition from elementary to middle school, for example, excitement can help accomplish what is scary to do.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

Next week’s entry: When Adolescents Renounce the Family Faith