Climate change, pollution, terrorism. Teenagers are increasingly scared of what's ahead, and why wouldn't they be? While a certain amount of fear is normal, psychologists advise teens to get help when anxiety takes over.
BERLIN — Terrorism, pollution, contaminated drinking water — these are the issues preoccupying teenagers today. Some consider this surprising, given that children in this part of world are relatively fortunate and not dealing with war and famine. But their lives so far have been defined by these looming problems. "They represent the key experiences of this generation Y," says Klaus Hurrelmann, professor for Public Health and Education at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and an expert in youth research.
Events such as 9/11 and the Fukushima nuclear disaser have marked their childhoods. That's also one of the reasons why these catastrophes have an even greater impact on the emotional state of many young people, more so than their own personal fears about disease, the death of loved ones and economic concerns. "Two or three years ago, security of employment was much more relevant and present in teenagers' minds," Hurrelmann says. "Now it has worn off a bit."
As children become teenagers, they begin to see the world through different eyes. They start questioning things, looking for their place in society, trying to find out what and who they will become one day. It's completely natural for fears to emerge during that process. But teenagers who are particularly sensitive to anxiety about modern life should quickly learn how to deal with it — by seeking help, if necessary.
Rainer Schütz deals with concrete concerns about the future on a daily basis. He is managing director of a toll-free German helpline for teenagers and says that the most cited concers are unwanted pregnancies and problems at school. "After having unprotected sex, it's important to get tested, in order to eradicate any doubts," he says. Because "not dealing with fears and carrying them around only makes things worse."
Talking about fears can often vanquish them, he says. "Vocalizing them helps to organize thoughts and discern well-founded fears from those without cause," Schütz says.
Growing up in a competitive society doesn't make things any easier. The pressure to perform weighs heavily on the shoulders of students from an early age, and parents are often guilty of piling on.
Working toward good grades is the most rational way to react to these pressures, but those who fail often wind up with serious self-doubts, fears for the future, and, in extreme cases, health problems.
When fear paralyzes
"Tensions, constant uneasiness and sleeping problems are possible consequences," explains Christiane Wempe, a psychologist at the University of Mannheim. In general, fear is nothing to be concered about, until and unless it begins to paralyze. "It is considered a mental disorder only when it starts to have a substantial impact on peoples' lives," she says.
Wempe recommends information centers, help desks in schools and universities, and also resources that can be found on the Internet.
The psychologist says that young men in particular are reluctant to seek help from professionals. So the Internet allows them to orient themselves and become aware of various interventions to find something they might be comfortable with.
Not all tensions among teens, of course, call for professional intervention. Wempe recommends exercise to reduce anxiety and pressure. Alcohol and drugs, on the other hand, only make things worse. "They bring short-term relief, but are no real problem-solution," she warns.
Fear is normal
Schütz advises making an effort to worry less when thinking about the future. Young people aren't supposed to be scared of trial and error. "Failure is part of the game. Sometimes it clears the road for new opportunities," he says.
In fact, a healthy fear of the future might even be useful. "It helps activate additional portions of energy," Wempe says. And energy is necessary to succeed in life, exams, job interviews and other challenges. Fear of the future is completely normal. "Especially in this specific and destabilizing period of life that represent the teenage years," Hurrelmann says. "Family, school, society. It's all being assessed critically."
And because teenagers tend to project perceived issues and their consequences onto themselves, these observations often scare them. But the good news is that, with advanced age, fear of the future fades.