7 Ways to Help a Teen Who’s Anxious About the Future

“What do you want to do after high school?” Now that my fourth child is a senior, I’ve both heard and asked that question a nauseating number of times. It’s almost become the default question you ask your teen’s friend when you bump into him or her at the store and you’re not quite sure what to talk about. And increasingly, the response you get is, “I don’t know.”

In recent years, one of the most common things adults have come to tell young children is “You can be whatever you want.” There is, of course, truth and untruth to this comment. But when you combine this sense that the whole world with infinite possibilities is open to you with a growing lack of meaning and the existential dread of the climate crisis and access to all the horrible things happening in the world at all times via social media, it’s no wonder we are seeing a rise in teen anxiety about the future. While it can be difficult to know how to help a teenager with anxiety, there are some tools you can use. Here are 7 ways to help a teen who is anxious about the future.

1. Listen.

I know you’ve had a long day and really don’t care about the latest TikTok video your child watched. Yes, you just walked in the door from work, and your project list is long, and the game is on, and there are a million other things vying for your attention. But your teen needs to know you see her and you know her. And the most effective way to grow anxiety is to keep it to yourself. So take sometime to stop, look your teen in the eye, and listen to what she’s thinking about.

2. Be a non-anxious presence.

You are probably just as concerned about your child’s future as he is. You know how challenging the world can be, and you want him to thrive. If you want to know how to help a teenager with anxiety, the worst thing you can do is feed it by projecting your own onto him. If you are struggling with anxiety about your child’s future, get some help. Find a friend to talk to or get a therapist (or both). But your child needs you to be a non-anxious presence in his life. That means you are able to listen, to challenge, to encourage, and to not be in control.

3. Serve together.

One of the factors that feeds a child’s anxiety about the future is a sense of helplessness over the problems facing the world. One gift you can give your child is to empower her to serve in a way that meets a need she cares about. It’s overwhelming to think about changing the world, but it’s empowering to think about how you can serve those in need around you. Take part in more grass roots local endeavors associated with issues your teen cares about. Look for ways to serve together with your teen.

4. Give her responsibility.

It can be tempting as a parent to think that the teenage years are supposed to be carefree, so our goal is to make sure our kids get to do what they want and are unencumbered by responsibilities. However, this is detrimental to our kids’ development. Your teen needs to know that she is responsible and capable. Having to work a job to save up money to purchase a car, for example, can be  empowering for a teen. Being responsible for certain things around the house helps her build expectations for what it means to grow into an adult and own a home and make decisions. Certainly she needs freedom to play as well. But a little bit of responsibility can go a long way in empowering your teen.

5. Let him fail.

This can be counterintuitive when thinking about how to help a teenager with anxiety about the future. If we let him fail, won’t he think he’s a failure? Actually, not if you help him learn and grow from it. It turns out that one thing you are guaranteed to do in life, if you attempt anything at all, is fail. What we really want to do is create opportunities for our teen to fail well. We want him to try things that push him beyond his limits so he can learn and grow. And when he does, we need to celebrate the process with him regardless of the outcome. This helps him see that life isn’t about success but growth.

6. Monitor your messaging.

What message are you sending to your teen about the future? Are you constantly hand-wringing over the most recent political skirmish? Do you have 24 hour news playing in the background at all times with its fear-mongering and drama? Are you pressing your teen to go to college when he really is more wired for trades but you think he’s “better than that?” There are lots of ways we can feed into a teen’s anxiety through the messages we send. We need to check ourselves and ask, “What am I communicating to my teen about his future?”

7. Model and teach healthy behaviors.

What rhythms of life do you model for your teen? A significant portion of dealing with anxiety about the future comes from our ability to choose healthy habits for ourselves that make us feel empowered, peaceful, and hopeful. These are simple things like patterns of exercise, adequate rest, prayer and meditation, meaningful friendships and overall healthy relationships and personal growth. Our lives speak loudly to our teens. It’s hard to sell them on something we don’t embrace ourselves. Do your work now so your teen can see it modeled.

Sound off: What other things can you do for a teen who is anxious about the future?

Huddle up with your teen and ask, “What are some things that make your friends anxious? What about you?”