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Early Adolescence and the Fear of Change

Beginning adolescence, developmental change can feel scary. That's okay.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

It’s pretty common, actually, although to parents this alteration in their child can come as a surprise.

I’m talking about when their bold and outgoing 10- or 11-year-old child, who was eagerly into trying everything, shows signs of shyness and anxiety about entering life situations which are unfamiliar and unstructured, acting reluctant to do so.

“She’s fine with what’s familiar, but retreats from experiences that are new and different. What’s the matter with her?”

The matter is coping with adolescent change, and she is feeling honorably ambivalent. The child part of her wants to hold on to the contentment and comforts of childhood while the restless part is urging her to let go, break some traditional boundaries, and start growing up. For a while, at the outset of this contest, the child part often seems to win. She doesn’t feel entirely ready yet, and that’s okay. Adolescence needs permission to proceed at its own individual rate, so parents need to be patient, encouraging but not critical.

Most any kind of change can be scary because to some degree it is an entry into the unfamiliar and unknown. Fear from ignorance and feeling scared of the unexpected are normal as adolescence gets underway. Fortunately, both sources of anxiety can also encourage engagement at this age.

The other side of fear is fascination, arousing curiosity. And the other side of feeling frightened is stimulation, arousing excitement. The roller coaster ride looks really scary, but is hugely tempting to try.

What generally gets the reluctant-to-grow adolescent underway is the influence of peers. Collective motivation in a peer group can persuade an individual member to go along and act accordingly. What the young person would not do by themselves on their own, she or he is more likely to do in the company of friends. So the 6th grade boy who does not want to go to his first “grown up” school dance lets himself be dragged along because he doesn’t want to be left out and miss out on the company of friends. And so the 7th grade girl, who is reluctant to dress more young womanly as puberty changes her body, agrees to let friends make her up because now they are starting to wear make-up too, and she wants to fit in.

In most cases, I think parents don’t credit the many small ways that early adolescence is scary for their daughter or son. Partly this is because of the parents’ own amnesia about anxieties of their own growing up, and partly this is because the young person keeps their fears to themselves. When parents do have the gift of recall, sharing growth anxieties from their youth can give acceptance to the young person and may encourage the daughter or son to emotionally share.

“I don’t know if my experience is exactly like yours right now, but I can definitely remember a lot of the fears I had at your age. For example, in early middle school I can remember taking hours to get my appearance and dress just right before leaving the house because I was afraid of what other people might think of how I looked. I can remember being scared of a teacher calling on me in class for fear I’d say something stupid in front of other students. I can remember being afraid of making and admitting a mistake for fear of being laughed at, or criticized, or corrected. I can remember the agony of deciding whether to try out for a team for fear of failing to make the competition. I can remember feeling scared of going along and not going along with what friends were daring to do. I can remember being afraid of trying new things because that felt like being out of control. And I had lots of other fears. But as I got used to all the changes, I grew more sure of myself and less afraid. I believe the same will be true for you. I just hope you’ll tell me when life gets scary so at least I can give you a listen. That way you won’t have to feel alone.”

It can also sometimes help if parents will talk operationally about adolescent change in terms the young person can relate to. “Growing up a big deal because it means changing in at least four ways. You have to START acting older, you have to STOP acting younger, you have to INCREASE responsibilities, and you have to DECREASE comforts you were used to. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed some times, wishing you could go back to simpler days, maybe this is why.”

In addition, parents can also soften change by explaining how it’s not as dramatic and extreme as it may first appear. “I know it feels like your whole world is being turned upside down by all this change, but it’s less than it seems. True, growing up is about you becoming DIFFERENT, but that’s actually the lesser part of the story. In fact, growing up is more about continuation than change. More about you will stay the SAME – like the person you basically are and the family you will always be part of. Growing up is about redefinition, not replacement.”

Another way to help soften early adolescent change for the young person is letting them know that she or he can hold on to childhood activities and objects and enjoyments as long as they want. “Just because you're growing older doesn’t mean you have to set aside or throw away all your precious childhood things.” This parental permission can be powerfully reassuring to a young person who is letting go of childhood but really misses holding on to some anchoring objects and activities in her former life for a while longer.

The entry into adolescence can feel daunting. However, instead of running from the feeling, the young person has to be brave. They have to follow their fear to engage with what is frightening.There is no other way. So parents can explain to the 5th grader anxious about middle school ahead: "Scary at first becomes comfortable with practice and learning. Courage to try builds confidence this way."

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

Next week’s entry: Last Stage Adolescence (18-23) and what is Consensual Sex