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Appreciating Fear in Adolescence

Respecting fear while not allowing it more room than it deserves is hard to do

During adolescence, should fear become significantly disruptive or disabling, if separation anxiety or social avoidance or panic attacks develop for example, some professional evaluation should be sought. When fears become this intense, a young person’s healthy functioning is at stake.

But what about lesser fears that are a normal part of growing up? I believe parents should be sensitive to these, although this can be hard to do when many young people are reluctant to disclose when they feel afraid. Why?

Perhaps the answer is because the adolescent believes the emotion shows something weak or cowardly, to be ashamed of and so to be secret about. Thus normal fears are not communicated to parents. Instead, unexpressed and kept in isolation, fears can feed upon themselves and increase anxiety. This is why many parents don’t appreciate how adolescence is often an act of courage as the young person braves one scary challenge after another during the daunting and uncertain process of growing up. Parents didn’t know because they were not told.

A huge topic, what follows is just a partial glimpse of normal adolescent fears, with some thoughts about ways parents might helpfully respond. To get started, consider how some ordinary fears can come to trouble adolescent growth.

FEAR OF FAILURE: of not succeeding (however “success” is defined.) For example, fearing failure, a young person can feel it’s safer not to make an effort than to try and take the risk of not achieving what feels difficult.

FEAR OF REJECTION: of having one’s application denied. For example, fearing rejection, a young person can decide not to go after an opportunity or relationship they want, to spare themselves possible refusal.

FEAR OF CRITICISM: of being faulted or disapproved. For example, fearing criticism, a young person can strive to please everyone, meet all expectations, and to do everything perfectly, no matter at what personal cost.

FEAR OF CHANGE: of what threatens to alter the terms of one’s life. For example, fearing change a young person can cling to the old and stubbornly resist the new, thereby slowing adjustment and limiting personal growth.

FEAR OF GOSSIP: of what rumor can do to attack social standing. For example, fearing gossip a young person can spend a lot of pointless effort striving to protect from damage what they cannot control—their reputation.

FEAR OF EMBARRASSMENT: of enduring painful public personal exposure. For example, fearing embarrassment a young person can shy away from speaking up or standing out to prevent sounding or appearing foolish.

FEAR OF INADEQUACY: of not measuring up to standards that personally matter. For example, fearing inadequacy a young person can work excessively hard to compensate for feelings of insecurity or inferiority.

FEAR OF DISAPPOINTING: of letting significant others down. For example, fearing disappointing family a young person can struggle to meet standards that may not be realistic or personally fit, just to satisfy parents.

FEAR OF DISAPPOINTMENT: of getting hopes up only to have them dashed. For example, fearing disappointment a young person doesn’t dare wish for the best lest wishes not come true and result in painful loss.

FEAR OF INTIMIDATION: of being pushed around by threatening others. For example, fearing bullies a young person avoids social contact with them for safety or puts up with bullying and loses self-respect in the process.

FEAR OF INJURY: of making choices that result in getting hurt. For example, fearing injury a young person becomes so anxious about possible harm they overcautiously end up avoiding normal risks it takes to grow.

Parents need to understand that adolescence can be fraught with fears, more than the few I have briefly suggested. This is why growing up is colored by so much anxiety. Because fear can be such a painful experience and such a powerful motivator, I believe that just as parents, to inform understanding and empower healthy choices, need to normalize the discussion of substance use and sexual behavior when adolescence begins, they need to do the same in response to managing the reality of adolescent fear.

Sometimes the best approach to discussing difficult subjects with the adolescent, like about money or substance use or sexual behavior or fear, is NOT for parents to begin by referring to the teenager’s life, but to talk about their own youthful experience first. For example, what fears did they have growing up, what troublesome episodes do they remember, how did they manage fear well and badly, how have they learned to manage their fears now, and what questions about fear might the adolescent have for them to answer?

The power of parental self-disclosure around difficult topics is that the revealing starts with the adults, shows their willingness to personally share, establishes their experience with the subject, and declares their openness in being confiding partners in any discussion. So a dad says: “Just to let you know how complicated fear can be, I remember going out with my friends in middle school, all of us feeling bored, and they decided to do some vandalizing for the excitement of it. I felt scared to go along with them, but more scared not to, and I feel badly about the damage we did to this day. It wasn’t that I couldn’t go against my friends. I was afraid to stand up to my fear.” In this case, the man didn’t use fear for the good, at least one good it offers: as an opportunity to mobilize courage.

How else can fear be “good”? To answer that, you might explain it this way. Like any emotion, fear is functional. It is part of an Affective Awareness System that allows people to identify when they feel something significant is happening in their world of inner or outer experience. Emotion alerts attention, it locates a cause, and it energizes a response. For example, when you feel Surprised, you are startled into taking notice, you identify something unexpected, and you cope with what you did not predict. All of that is what emotion helps you to do.

Each emotion is sensitive to a different aspect of affective experience. For example, Grief is typically a response to Loss, Frustration is typically a response to Blockage, Anger is typically a response to Violation, and Fear is typically a response to Danger. Fear warns of a possible threat to safety. Just as people who have limited access to their emotions can be inadequately informed because they often don’t know what they feel; fearless people can be unprotected because they lack sufficient vigilance to identify possible harm.

Parents need to tell their adolescent how fear can be a good informant. Don’t ignore it, block it out, or censor it. Pay attention to the warning it is giving. So the mom says this to her high school age daughter who is just starting to seriously socialize, going to parties and out on dates. “If you ever find yourself in a situation where you feel vaguely distrustful, somewhat intimidated, or otherwise feel unsafe in social company, and the sense of threat will not go away, honor your fear, get yourself out of there, or if you can’t, call us and we will come and get you.” Here the parental message was: “Respect your fear.”

Then parents also need to give the counter instruction. “While fear, like any emotion, can be a good informant, it can also be a bad advisor. Fear can cause you to limit yourself, not stand up for yourself, deny yourself, and not think clearly for yourself. When in danger, it’s not a time to be driven by your feeling of fear, but to use your best judgment, your head, to figure out what is best to do.” Perhaps with this instruction in mind, when their high school son got caught in a scary encounter outside the stadium after the homecoming game, he didn’t let fear have its way.

Walking out of the stadium, he was challenged by an angry group of students from the rival school which had just lost a closely contested game. It was a tense situation with members of the losing side eager to retry the contest off the field. I don’t think the young man knew the three impulsive choices he didn’t make that might have felt right in the moment, but would likely have proved wrong in the end – flight, freeze, or fight. Had he taken flight he might have energized pursuit, had he frozen he might have invited attack, or had he decided to fight he might have inflamed hostilities. Instead, he used his head. He approached them with a smile, held out his hand, congratulated them on a great game, praised a couple of outstanding plays, remembered how they won last year, and said how much he respected and valued the rivalry. Somehow his good-humored approach seemed to take the anger out of them as they walked and talked together to the parking lot, even starting to joke, looking forward to the game next year. When frightened, he didn’t resort to flight, freeze, or fight; he just decided to act friendly.

Finally, consider the dad who had coached his competitive daughter in sports all the way through middle school and now saw her caught between wanting to run and not daring to run for student office in high school, the first non-athletic contest she had ever considered entering. She couldn’t make up her mind, as he saw it, because her fear was getting in the way. “I don’t know what I really want,” she explained. That’s when he started to ask several liberating questions to encourage freeing herself from the rule of fear.

“What would you choose to do, if you were not feeling afraid?” he asked. She’d run for office. “What is the worst thing that could happen to you if you did?” he asked. She could lose. “If you lost, how would cope and recover?” he asked. She would figure out the next best thing she wanted and go after that. Fear has so many good life lessons to teach, like this one. “If you can live with the worst possible outcomes you fear that can free you up to try your best for what you want."

“Don’t be afraid” is rarely sound advice for parents to give their adolescent since it discounts the good fear has to offer and it sounds critical enough to shut discussion down. Better to say may be this. “Respect your fear, consider what it warns, don’t give it more worry room than it realistically deserves, consult your judgment not your feelings about how to cope, brave your best choices when they feel scary, and appreciate the courage that this takes.”

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

Next week’s entry: Keeping a Sense of Humor when Parenting Adolescents