Fear is something every one of us has to deal with at some point. It has a purpose— though evolution fear has protected us from making harmful decisions. However, in some cases, fear can also do harm; it can become so overwhelming that it prevents us from pursuing even benign activities and holds us back from achieving our goals. This can be debilitating at any stage in life, but particularly in the formative teenage years. Untreated, a fear in adolescence can result in a person needlessly holding back from pursuing a talent, career, or even relationships in life. That’s why it is important to recognise and treat these fears as they form in childhood and adolescence. To begin, let us consider some of the different types of fears a teen might have.

Fear of rejection

Nobody likes being rejected. That’s normal in itself. However, when adolescents develop a fear of rejection it can become debilitating to the point that they are afraid to even try to push themselves. For example, a teen who fears romantic rejection might hold back from ever pursuing a romantic relationship. They might never come forward with ideas or innovations for fear that theirs will be turned down. Unchecked, this fear can have negative effects on their adult lives too. An example of this would be someone being afraid to go for a promotion or a new job because of being rejected for it.

Fear of criticism

As with rejection, nobody particularly enjoys being criticised. It’s part and parcel of life, however, and teens must understand this. Teens should be encouraged to look at criticism objectively, to view it as feedback on ways they can improve or develop. The danger is, if adolescents develop an actual fear of criticism, it can hold them back from trying to achieve anything or take any kind of risk, however moderate. This can hinder their development, both in adolescence and into adulthood, forever afraid to leave their comfort zone for fear of being criticised.

Fear of change

Most of us have been apprehensive about change at some point in our lives. Adolescence itself is a time practically defined by change. And it can be intimidating for pre-teens and teens as they progress through it. It could be the transition from primary to secondary education, or secondary to third level. It could be a change in family structure. A major change in one’s life can even have a traumatic impact if not dealt with appropriately; a negative experience of change can have a lasting effect on the teen that causes them to fear or withdraw from change throughout life. This can stifle development and hold them back from reaching their true potential.

Fear of disappointing/ ‘letting down’

In some ways, this is a double-edged sword because teens effectively feel they’re letting both themselves down and others. It stings twice. An example of this might be fear of letting their school football team down by not scoring enough goals—this could cause a teen to decide that it’s easier simply not to partake in sports at all. Or perhaps they have unrealistic academic or professional expectations of themselves, fearing that they will have let their parents down if they don’t become a doctor, for example, or follow in their parent’s footsteps in a particular career.

Fear of being disappointed

Again, nobody likes being embarrassed. It’s certainly something most of us try to avoid. However, where it becomes debilitating is when it causes us to not even try or to hold back. Sometimes tied in with the fear of rejection, a teen talented in music, for example, might be afraid to ever perform in public for fear of humiliating themselves in front of an audience. Untreated, this could lead to an adolescent never being able to show their talents to the world which would be a great pity.

Fear of being embarrassed

Negative experiences with being disappointed in the past may cause a teen to stop pursuing goals or trying to achieve things altogether; they may feel that the possible feeling of disappointment outweighs the chance of things working out. For instance, they might not apply for the college course they truly desire, instead choosing to settle on an ‘easy win’ that might not be exactly what they want but one they know they have a high chance of securing.

Fear of getting hurt (physically or emotionally)

It could be down to an experience, or it could be based on what they’ve heard from others. Teens with an overwhelming fear of getting hurt may decide that it’s ‘safer’ not to pursue that activity or goal at all, no matter how low the risk of getting hurt is. It could be a fear of getting physically hurt; perhaps they’ll hold back from cycling or running on a road for fear of getting hit by a car. It could be a fear of emotionally getting hurt; perhaps a past breakup or romantic rejection might cause them to withdraw from ever getting romantically involved with someone again, casting aside the possibility of happiness for fear of having to undergo the pain of a relationship ending again.

Fear of failing or not succeeding

This can be intertwined with some of the other teenage fears listed above, such as the fear of rejection or the fear of disappointment. Fear of not succeeding in sport, music, art, or even education, might cause a teen to decide it’s easier (and less risky) to simply not pursue these fields at all. Rather than look at the opportunities that come with their chance of success, they instead dwell on what might happen if they fail. This could cripple them into adulthood, holding them back from pursuing goals or dreams for fear they won’t work out.

Fear of being different

Adolescence is a period in which one’s identity is developed, social structures are formed and we start to get a sense of how we fit into society and the world in general. Teens don’t want to feel different or left out. Unfortunately, sometimes this fear of being different or ‘not one of the gang’ can have negative impacts. For instance, they might feel peer pressure to act out. They might feel pressured to start drinking, smoking, or engaging in sexual activity even if they don’t feel comfortable about it. These are all things that can have lasting negative effects if a teen feels forced into them and isn’t fully educated on them.

Fear of being intimidated or bullied

If a teen has been bullied or intimidated, be it at school or in an extracurricular activity, it may cause them to withdraw or avoid the activity where the bullying took (or takes) place. Maybe a bully intimidated them for getting answers right in class, in which case a teen might decide that being perceived as ‘smart’ is a danger to them and cause them to slack back at school. Or they might avoid hanging out in a particular park, e.g., for fear that the bully will be around there.

These are just examples of the types of fear a teen might have. Now, you might well think ‘so what, we’re all afraid of those things. The thing is, it’s so much the fear itself, but the impact it has on the teen. Yes, as we’re said, it’s normal not to like those things. However, it’s when they hold a teen back or cause them to withdraw, that fear becomes debilitating and needs to be treated.

The roles that parents can play in helping teens overcome their fear

Talk with them, not at them

Look, we’ve all been teenagers at some point. For many of us, it wasn’t exactly a time when we were particularly open to being ‘spoken down to’ by parents or authority figures. So don’t. Talk with them. Be vulnerable and expose your flaws. Tell them about a time when you let fear take hold of you and how you regret its consequences. It could be a case of recounting an underage drinking incident where things went badly. It could involve telling them how you regret not pursuing a talent for fear of embarrassment or failure if you didn’t succeed. By sharing your experiences and mistakes with them, you’re taking a far more emphatic approach to discuss fear (and its ramifications) with them than simply giving them a judgemental ‘lecture’ they’re unlikely to take heed of.
It can also be helpful to engage with your teen in a ‘What if?’ scenario. For instance, if your teen is holding back from participating in a school concert, despite being a secretly talented guitarist, discuss with them what it would be like if things went right. Encourage them to consider all the possibilities and opportunities that showcasing their talent to a greater audience might bring. Then contrast how there’s no possibility of any of these good things happening if they hold back from trying at all.
Now, of course, it’s important to remember that fear isn’t always a bad thing, and you should discuss it with your teen too. Talk with them about how, at its root, fear is there to prevent them from engaging in dangerous situations and to exercise caution. For instance, fear tells us not to run out in the middle of a busy road, cause we’ll probably get knocked down by a car. Then point out that an irrational extension of this would be to never cross any road, no matter how quiet, for fear of being knocked down. Knowledge is power, as they say, and teens should be encouraged to make informed decisions about a situation when the feeling of ‘fear’ sets in.
Hopefully the above will give you some insight into helping a teen that is being held back by a fear of doing something. Sometimes, however, outside help is needed and this is where therapy can prove useful. There are different forms of treatment, these include:

Talk Therapy
One example of Talk Therapy being used to treat fear in teens is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). In CBT, the therapist talks with the teen about their fear, what is causing it, and the impact that it is having on their life. The therapist helps the teen to change how they view these fearful thoughts and interact with them, to reduce their impact.

Exposure Therapy
In some cases, a therapist might use exposure therapy to treat fear in a teen. This involves gradually exposing the teen to their fear until it gets to a point where it no longer causes them anxiety. One example for a teen with a fear of being embarrassed might be a role-play session where they continually imagine an audience heckling them on stage to the point it no longer has any impact.

If you’d like to get in touch about therapy options for teens overwhelmed by fear, please do drop me a line. The contact form can be found below, I’ll get back as soon as I can, and rest assured that it’s all in the strictest confidence.

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