Now What? Dealing with Kids’ Fear of the Future

September 17th, 2009



They act with little thought about the consequences of their actions, temporarily believing they’re both immortal and invincible:

  • “I won’t crash my car when doing 93 mph in a 55 mph zone!”
  • “I won’t get pregnant or acquire an STD!”
  • “I won’t overdose on drugs or ingest a lethal dose of alcohol!”
  • “I won’t get caught when I cheat, steal, or lie!”
  • “I can slack off in school and still get into college and snag a high-paying job!”

Their only thoughts are of today. They’re completely mesmerized by the transient, material world. Image is everything. The future is a foreign concept. A far-off place. A distant land that doesn’t affect their here-and-now. Life is a daily crisis characterized by storms and stress. There are far too many other worries—violence, grades, parents, fitting in—to even thinkabout the future, or what it might bring.

This twisted rationale has guided adults’ thoughts about adolescents for decades, giving them reason to dismiss kids’ silent cries for help as standard, teenage output. This mantra is easy to believe because it confirms what we suspect is true about the teen years, based on our observations and experiences; and it does contain some elements of truth.

Teens do routinely take risks, but then ours is a culture of risk-takers. How else would you describe a people who crossed a vast ocean in small vessels to settle a new land they’d never seen? Or those who packed up all of their worldly possessions in wagons to head west through the wilderness, willing to face unknown perils? Is it really any wonder that American society has the highest percentage of risk-taking teens? ? However, the overwhelming majority of these teens don’t engage in patterns of risky behavior, nor do they experience a turbulent adolescence.

While younger teens give little conscious thought to their futures, this cannot be said of high school students, who are obsessively planning for life after graduation. More than 90 percent of seniors expect to attend college, and more than 70 percent anticipate working at professional levels. And their preoccupation with school, homework, and grades isn’t driven by the desire to be the best as an end in itself; rather, it represents their belief that they must do well if they expect to become successful and have comfortable lives in the future.

The future impacts and influences all teens, whether or not they recognize its hold on their lives. It is the silent motivator for most of their actions. Their thoughts and worries about violence, grades, parents, and fitting in are essentially thoughts and worries about the future. Their actions, even their risk- taking, are propelled by their fears of an uncertain future.

Fear is a primary emotion related to avoidance behavior; it’s a response to something a person perceives as threatening. Childhood fears are typically easy for adults to identify and reduce, or even eradicate completely. How many times have parents had to prove to their children that monsters don’t live in the closet or under the bed? While a bedtime ritual of peaking under the bed, searching through the closet, and leaving a light on might persist for a time, children eventually grow out of these fears as their abilities to reason develop and they learn to trust their parents’ judgment.

Teens’ fear of the future is not as easily eradicated. The future is threatening because it’s unknown. Youths’ mystical, irrational behaviors are often subconscious attempts to shield themselves from the uncertainty of what lies behind that closed door to tomorrow. Don’t expect teens to self-diagnose this fear, however. Fear of the future is a complicated condition with a myriad of symptoms that mask its presence, and it strikes teens in varying degrees. Rarely will they identify the grip it has on their lives. But it does impact the way teens either lean into or retreat from life. For those who perceive themselves as ready to cope with whatever the future holds, it may only be a blip on the radar screen; but for others, the fear of the future can become the behind-the-scenes director of their every action. Whether embraced or feared, it’s the future that most significantly impacts teens’ present.

Identity and the Future

Most agree with educational psychologist Erik Erikson that the central task of adolescence is discovering one’s identity. Among the existential questions they ask in their ongoing search—Will my life have meaning? Will I make a difference? Will anyone care if I live or die? What will I become?—necessitates risk taking. Teens must experiment with life, tackle new challenges, and test limits to learn how to think and how to act—to discover who they are. But their ability to think long-term and consider the consequences of their actions is hampered by their lack of experience and undeveloped reasoning skills—and unless they’re allowed to make significant personal decisions, they won’t find acceptable answers on their search for self.

Who they become in the future is dependent on who they are allowed to be in the present.

This isn’t an endorsement to close your eyes if your students indiscriminately choose their own standards of behavior or recklessly pursue their own personal value systems, devoid of adult influence. When teens engage in risky behaviors, they expect parents and significant adults to intervene. Their behavior “is a way of finding out what adults think, feel, and expect. It’s a way for adolescents to try to fathom how they are supposed to act, think, and create and maintain relationships once they become adults.” When significant adults do not intervene, patterns of risky behavior may develop, and teens’ search for identity can become frightening. The future appears nebulous or even nonexistent, and any dreams or hopes they may have held about their lives can begin disintegrating.

But if adults intervene too often or react fearfully to risk-taking and experimentation, the impact on teens’ identity formation can also be devastating. Consider Alisa’s story. Her parents encouraged her to participate in gymnastics as a young girl. She showed great talent for the sport and began to win competitions at an early age. Alisa enjoyed gymnastics, and her coach began preparing her to compete in the Junior Olympics. She held the promise of continuing on to athletic stardom, but her enthusiasm began to diminish. In junior high, she expressed an interest in cheerleading, but her parents didn’t approve. They worried that she might pull a muscle cheerleading and get knocked out of gymnastics competition. But Alisa no longer wanted to compete, since her training schedule kept her out of typical teenage social activities. The dream was no longer hers—it was her parents’ dream and her coach’s dream, and they refused to allow her to quit.

Because she was a compliant child and a good student, she repressed her personal desires and fulfilled those of her parents. Eventually, however, Alisa began to feel trapped and afraid that she would never make friends or have dates. As she considered her future, she began to experience a growing fear that she would always be alone and unhappy. One day, to everyone’s total shock, Alisa ran away from home so she could live her own life and pursue her own dreams. She did contact her parents after many months, but she never returned home. By not allowing Alisa to discover her own identity as a person, her parents lost out on their dream of having a gymnastics star as a daughter—but far more important and more tragic, they lost their daughter altogether.

A more common reaction than Alisa’s compliance is rebellion. Testing limits and defying authority is characteristic of most teens in varying degrees, but it isn’t as much an “in your face” rejection of authority as it is an attempt to discover personal niches in an unfolding world: “Where are the boundaries that define my space?”

Teenage girls most often look to their mothers to help them discover who they will become, which is, perhaps, why the mother-daughter relationship is normally characterized by more closeness and more discord than any other parent-child relationship. As adolescent girls challenge their mothers’ authority and opinions, they also monitor their reactions and internalize the information. They are learning, consciously and unconsciously, how “to become.” How many adult females, for better or worse, have awakened one day to realize, “I am my mother”?

Male rebellion may often take more extreme forms, because frequently they are left to discover their identities without interference from adult males. All too often, fathers retreat from their adolescent sons out of a mistaken belief that they need to face challenges and struggles on their own if they are to become “strong men.” As recent research has reminded us, however, the role of the father is key in helping sons negotiate life. The desire for relationships is as strong for teen males as it is for females. They long to stay attached to their parents and significant adult role models, and these connections have the power to help them discover their identity, to develop into men.

Symptomatic Behaviors and Attitudes

Numerous polls and studies are conducted regularly to help us understand the most persistent beliefs and concerns of teens. A recent Newsweek poll year identified violence in society, sexually transmitted diseases, and the cost of their college education as the top three teen worries. In his popular work, The Bridger Generation, Thom S. Rainer highlights the fears of today’s teens: “Their greatest fear is that something bad will happen to their families; they are afraid they will not make it financially as adults; they are afraid of being a victim of crime; they live in fear of AIDS.”

But these are just symptoms. Teens don’t fear the pain of violence as much as they’re afraid that a violent crime will rob them of a future. School shootings introduce the possibility that their lives may be taken from them. If they don’t have enough money to go to the right college, they might not get the job they want; if they don’t land a high paying job, they probably won’t have a “successful, happy” future. Their worries are a more sophisticated version of their childhood fears. “I’m afraid that something out there is going to get me. I don’t know what it is—or exactly what it might do to me—but I want someone to get rid of it before it hurts me. Don’t leave me to face this future/monster alone.”

Fear Versus Faith

If you ask teens about the future, they will respond with mixed messages. A 15-year-old from Washington: “I can’t decide if I want to be famous, or if I want to go live in the mountains. That’s what it’s like for a lot of high school kids: We don’t know how to get there, what it’s really going to be like.” A 17-year-old from Mississippi: “We’re supposed to be stressed-out, pessimistic, lonely, and frustrated. At least that’s what the media tells us. Actually, I’m basically a happy guy, and I think most of my friends are, too. I sure hope my generation doesn’t buy into everything we’re told.” A 16-year-old from Florida: “I can’t remember not being worried about something. Sometimes I’m happy, but most of the time I’m just worried.”

As Christian youth workers, we’d like to think that our teens are best represented by the voice of the 17-year-old from Mississippi; they’re happy, they’ve learned to trust God with their futures, and they’re not overly anxious about anything. I asked several youth ministers from various states to distribute a short, anonymous survey to their teens in order to identifytheir worries, interests, and thoughts about the future. Of nearly 300 surveys returned, 30 percent were clearly optimistic about the future, expressing an excitement for discovering what God has in store, trusting that it will be “cool!” Only 10 percent were overtly pessimistic. Their comments included such statements as: “I think Christianity will be banned/persecuted so much, it will almost disappear,” “I’m worried about where our world will be,” “Our country is going downhill,” and “It’s scary thinking about where I’ll be.” Another 10 percent responded with mixed feelings, such as, “I want to do what God wants me to do, but sometimes it’s hard to know what he wants.”

Regardless of their degree of optimism/pessimism, though, thoughts of the future do drive choices they make in the present. Even our church youths who express the desire to serve God say they’re uncomfortable because they don’t know how. Uncertainty makes the future scary.

A couple of years ago, some colleagues of mine surveyed several thousand youths to find out what topics they were most interested in studying. The overwhelming, number-one response from senior highers was discovering how to know God’s will; for junior highers it was their second-biggest concern.

While I don’t want to dismiss the idea that Christian teens honestly seek to please God, I believe it’s their desire to know the future that most forcefully drives their interest in knowing God’s will. They know that trusting God and living according to his plans will bring them the greatest joy, so they want to know exactly what they should do to “have a nice life.”

Unfortunately, when leading youths in a Bible study on discerning God’s will, they’re often left frustrated or even disappointed, realizing that there’s no magic way to peer into the future. Their fascination with God’s will may be a Christianized-version of their peers’ interest in psychic hotlines: They’re more interested in knowing how following God will impact them as opposed to simply following him because they’re called to do so.

Another indicator of Christian teens’ future-focus is revealed in their biblical studies preferences. When asked which book of the Bible they would most enjoy studying, 32 percent of the teens in my friends’ survey listed the Book of Revelation as their number-one choice. (No other book received even a five percent share of the votes!)

Was the Future an Issue in the Past?

Is this future-fear a contemporary phenomenon for teens, or is it best understood as a developmental constant? An interesting poll conducted byYouth for Christ magazine in 1953—the height of the Cold War—asked young people, “Are you disturbed about your future in an atomic age?” The writer described the results as a “thrilling witness of what Christ means in a Christian young person’s life.” It was his contention that Christian youth didn’t fear the future. Only five percent admitted being afraid; and these, the author was quick to point out, were all younger than 16; in fact, 93 percent responded that they weren’t afraid of the future. However, in reading their remarks, the students didn’t deny a fear of the future so much as they expressed their confidence in God. “These things must come to pass.” “Jesus holds my future.” “The Lord is coming before an atomic war.” Does their attitude reflect a resignation of the inevitable, or true confidence in the future?

Another publication from that same year suggests that youths were fearful of the future. They were described as being plagued by fears of the uncertain future and impending doom, haunted by the possibility that they wouldn’t survive the Cold War. One pastor expressed it this way: “Young people come to me in confidence…frustrated and wondering whether in a war-ridden world, with all of war’s aftermath, life has meaning; and there is no general nostrum I can give, no one over-all statement that will do. I must show the pertinence of Christ for the young people who face life today as it actually is.”

Other writers have described the ’50s as a less fearful time for teens than life today. They experienced family stability, with plenty of time for recreation and relaxation. Their lives were characterized by “optimism, economic security, and clearly defined career and gender roles.” There was little confusion about future roles for males, and even less for females. But today’s myriad of choices open to young men and women of all races and socioeconomic classes only contributes to their future-fear and adds pressures that didn’t formerly exist. Society’s tendency to rush children to adulthood has also been attributed to increased pressure and stress on adolescents in the last decade.

Whether the fear is new or as old as adolescence itself, the important thing for youth leaders to recognize is the powerful grip that the future has on our teenagers. Let’s ask ourselves such key questions as:

  • Do we encourage kids to make significant personal decisions on their search for self—or do we force-feed them answers?
  • Do we provide reasonable boundaries, allowing students opportunities to take some risks, but avoid the development of risky behavior patterns?
  • Do we play on kids’ fear of the future by using it as an evangelistic strategy; or do our kids know that salvation is for today, not just a gift they open at death?

©2004 Youth Specialties

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