What your teens fear most is quite different from what may keep you awake at night. Most parents’ worries are theoretical and future-based — fear for their teens’ safety at school and their ability to compete in an increasingly tough world. They worry about college admissions, jobs and unfair treatment by peers. Teens, in contrast, fear what is already directly in front of them. Though social media stretches their global perspective, what’s on their minds most is narrower than what you might think.
Three innate fears drive teen reactions. When you know those fears and what your teens need most from you, you can provide what’s already within your control — lasting antidotes to help them power through and emerge with a positive perspective.
Fear No. 1: Rejection
Who doesn’t want to be liked and accepted? But with teens, this craving trumps all else because of the intense drive to be part of a group. Worse, in the peer jungle, liking is based on who’s highest on the food chain for the day, so rejection is hard to escape. When Becca’s best friend ditched her, Becca was crushed. And when Aaron, who lived and breathed sports, didn’t make the basketball team, he wanted to quit everything and switch schools.
The antidote to rejection is unconditional love and acceptance at home. Since rejection is part of life, learning how to handle it positively is critical. If your teens end up in the dirt of the peer heap or fail to make a team or club, listen, empathize, and then offer perspective. “No wonder you’re sad. That hurts. But you know what? When I look at you, I see someone special — your heart for helping others and your passion for (fill in the blank). Remember when you (share a story), and you didn’t give up? Well, you’ll figure it out this time, too. I believe in you, and I’m blessed to have a kid like you.” With such unconditional love and acceptance, your teens can learn to take rejection in stride and become resilient.
Fear No. 2: Uncertainty and being left alone
Your teens may act like nothing bothers them, but they worry constantly. Ever-present on their minds is the survival-of-the-fittest peer environment in which even those on the highest rock can be dethroned at any moment. That makes their world outside your nest rocky, but throw in uncertainty at home — like Maya, whose dad suddenly had a lengthy overseas assignment, or Trevor whose parents were in the midst of a messy divorce — and the uncertainty can be paralyzing.
The antidote to uncertainty is stability at home. When your teens arrive home, they need a safe, calm atmosphere where they can sort out their thoughts and the events that threw them a curveball that day. You are the constant in their rapidly evolving universe. They need to know you’re there, not leaving, and that they are a priority over your work. Maya needed to be assured that even if her dad was overseas, her mom would be with her. Trevor sometimes felt like a pingpong ball served between two homes, but he knew his mom’s was a safe, calm place to sort out the turmoil and that he had an open invitation to talk if and when he was ready.
There’s nothing worse than having a horrible day, needing to talk and having no one they trust to talk to. When the thundercloud arrives in your kitchen, quietly say, “I can tell you’ve had a rough day. If you want to talk, I’ll be here.” Then when the mouth opens (and it will eventually), actively listen. Throw in a “Wow, I can see why you’re upset,” or a “Tell me more about that,” and you’ll be amazed what you learn. Role-modeling unchanging character, priorities, and most of all, a rock-solid presence guarantees a foundation stronger than any uncertainty your teens face.
Fear No. 3: Being the target
Fear can reign in competitive or vicious peer groups. Anything “different” about your teens, including clothes, “loner” status or the simple fact they’re breathing next to an insecure guy who needs to ensure he’s top dog, paints a big target on their backs. With the ease of spreading rumors on a smartphone, it’s not just face-to-face bully encounters anymore. Social media’s anonymity and few — if any — consequences mean anyone can say anything about anyone at any time and share it at the press of a button, and it’ll remain indefinitely in the electronic universe. There’s no “do-over,” as Megan discovered the hard way after her former BFF betrayed her to earn a temporary thumbs-up with the gossip groupies. Today’s teens constantly fear being the next target.
The antidote to being the target is a balanced perspective and a “we’re in this together” guarantee. Bad things do happen, and people can be mean. Both are facts of life, so it’s better to prepare your teens before it happens, if possible. Share a time when you were targeted. Point out that many bullies behave as they do because they’re insecure, and taking someone down makes them feel temporarily important. Knowing that truth removes some of the sting.
If you teen has been hurt like Megan, let her vent or cry without judgment. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Instead, say, “Tell me more” to get the whole story. Afterward, count to 10. Then say, “No wonder you’re upset. I’d be upset if that happened to me. So what are your next steps?” That little prompt encourages a transition from venting to workable solutions. When her mom used that antidote, Megan came up with her own tactic, backed with her mom’s approval.
The next morning, Megan walked up to the gossiping group and said straightforwardly, “What I did was pretty dumb, huh? I’ll never do that again.” She shrugged like it was no big deal, then continued down the hallway, leaving speechless, insecure groupies in her wake. In two seconds, she took herself off the target board.
So give your teens credit — they’re more resourceful than you could ever imagine. But they still need the guarantee of you as listener and backup.
Every time your teens step out your door, that trio of fears hangs heavily over them. Is it any surprise, then, that they sometimes react to that high stress by picking on a sibling or even you? But when you understand what’s really going on behind the attitude-of-the-moment, you can provide support for their daily foray into the teen jungle.Dr. Kevin Leman is a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours and When Your Kid Is Hurting.