Adolescence and Expressive Inhibition

Fears of emotional and social consequences from trying can inhibit growth

Posted Oct 07, 2014

It's a choice for limiting oneself, and when I'm told it by an adolescent I feel sad at the opening, opportunity, or invitation for growth that is being lost as the young person gives up some positive possibility. The decison justifies not doing an activity or experience that the interested part of the young person would really like to try, but that a fearful part of them is reluctant to risk, fear winning out.

This is not to say that realistic fears should be discounted; only that the fears under discussion here are largely of the emotional kind. 

While these fears vary, the outcome is the same -- what I call Expresive Inhibition. This is a refusal to follow their heart that keeps the adolescent from developing their growing self at an age after which they will never feel so free to grow again once the struggles and responsibilities of of adulthood settle in. 

I believe that adolescence is partly ordained for experimentation and exploration -- to try oneself out in many new and different ways, to expand one's expressive repertoire, to increase range of experience, to diversify oneself more fully than when one was a child. Of course, no one actualizes all their expressive potentials; but adolescence is a time to nurture one's interests and capacities for individuality's and independence sake. Giving normal fears that beset adolescence extortionate power can lead to later regret looking back. "I wish I'd tried that when I was younger and had the chance, but it's too late now."

In this case, Fear of Disappointment overcame the will to try. Having gotten hopes up before only to have them dashed when dreams came crashing down, the young person decided not to suffer that heartbreak again. The emotional cost was judged not worth the risk of of pursuing positive possibilities.

Consider some other common fears that can prompt Expressive Inhibition.

FEAR OF INADEQUACY. At an age when confidence can be in short supply, expressive inhibition can be couched in statements of deficiency like this: "I'm not ______ enough." For example: "I'm not talented enough," "I'm not athletic enough," "I'm not smart enough," "I'm not outgoing enough," "I'm not attractive looking enough," "I'm not popular enough," "I'm not coordinated enough, ""I'm not musical enough," "I'm not artistic enough," "I'm not good enough." Each statement claims some deficiency as an excuse to shut the door to some expressive opportunity. Never mind that everyone is deficient compared to somebody else and that nobody is proficient in everything.

FEAR OF ROLE VIOLATION. At an age when sex role definitions are supposed to be strongly contrasted, expressive inhibition can be couched in a statement of not wanting to violate stereotypes. "It's unwomanly for for girls to do that" or "It's unmanly for boys to do that." So a girl avoids a Debate elective because she believes interest in competition arguing might make her look too aggressive. Or a boy avoids a Fashion Design elective because he believes drawing clothes, particularly dresses, might make him look too feminine. Never mind that beneath the artificial and arbitrary popular role distinctions between male and female, a greater human sameness connects them both.

FEAR OF EMBARRASSMENT. At an age of more social cruelty when young people can treat each other meanly in the process of competing for social standing and dominance, expressive inhibition can be couched in a determination to avoid being teased. "I hate being put down." "I hate being made fun of." "I hate being laughed at." When a young person tries a new avenue of expression and finds their efforts made public fun of, they may resolve not to expose themselves to that ridicule again. So a boy is laughed at for his awkward steps at a school dance by non-dancing other boys who then exaggerate his awkwardness with silly imitation to make him look and feel even worse. Mortified, he decides not to try dancing again. Or a girl who always wanted to try out for basketball gets laughed off the court by more skillful players for how she throws the ball at the basket and can't hold onto a pass. So much for that sport! Never mind that most young people tease others about which they fear being teased themselves.

FEAR OF FAILURE. At an age when performance, particularly in comparison to peers, can be a major pillar of self-esteem, trying anything new or different or unfamiliar can raise the risk of not doing it competently or on a high level. Because they can't do it well right away, or well enough, it can feel safer not to try, even though it's something she or he would like to do. So, making everything she does  a matter of high achievement, the honor-role student refuses to attempt anything at which she might not excell. Or the struggling student doesn't want to try something new out of fear he might appear to fail at this, as he is doing elsewhere. Neither student is willing to engage in a new activity just for the pleasure of it because the priority on performance gets in the way. Never mind that much in life can be worth doing simply for the enjoyment of the activity, with no concern for performance at all.

FEAR OF REJECTION. At an age when peer group belonging feels very important, social acceptance becomes the key. Public behavior can have social consequences. More self-conscious on this account, the young person often feels "on stage," on view to "the eyes of the world" any time they try to express themselves in a new or different way through actions, opinions, interests, or dress. There is a fear of what others might think -- a kind of "stage fright " about showing themselves off. More than a fear of failure, this is a fear of criticism or rejection if others don't think well of them. What will happen to their reputation? So the teenager, who has dreamed of running for student office, shies away from putting themselves in the public spotlight to run for what they want. Never mind that no one controls their own reputation because no one controls what others will think or say.

So, what advice might parents give when they see their teenager struggling with expressive inhibition: "Should I or shouldn't I try what I calls to me?"  They might suggest something like this. "Don't refuse pursuing something of sincere interest because in some way you feel afraid to make the effort or risk an uncertain oucome. If the activity or experience honestly calls to you and it will do you or others no knowing harm, go after it. Adolescence is a time for courage. You have our support. Don't let your fears limit how you want to grow."  

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

Next week’s entry: Why Attachment Parenting is for Children, but not for Adolescents