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Adolescence and the Management of Parental Worry

Use worry to foresee possible risks but not to discourage youthful confidence.

Key points

  • Parental worry tends to increase as the more worldly interests and exposures of adolescence begin.
  • Although fearful to experience, parental worries can be helpful when anticipating dangerous possibilities.
  • Constructive discussion of parental worries can help the adolescent learn to think ahead.
Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

So, what is worry? Worry is fearful imagining of unwanted possibilities that can create troubling doubt. Worry asks questions:

"Did I make the right choice?"

"Am I doing the wise thing?

""Will I regret what I just did"

A very complicated mental and emotional state to manage, worry can sometimes serve parents well, and sometimes badly.

Worry to the Good

Although based on fearful wondering, stressful and alarming to experience, worry has a lot of positives going for it. Consider 10:

  1. Worry isn’t boring: You keep alert.
  2. Worry is empowering: You think ahead.
  3. Worry is creative: You imagine what might be.
  4. Worry is watchful: You keep your wits about you.
  5. Worry is careful: You consider unwanted possibilities.
  6. Worry is caring: You stay focused on what most matters.
  7. Worry is cautious: You make decisions with due deliberation.
  8. Worry is curious: You wonder about what might possibly occur.
  9. Worry is a bold predictor: You foresee risks or problems to beware.
  10. Worry is a possible protector: You think ahead and lessen risk and danger.

Parents want to practice enough worry and thinking ahead to help keep their teenager mindful of growing risks.

Should Parents Worry?


Worry is watching out for possible trouble or danger in their growing child’s life. Born ignorant and innocent, not given to thinking far beyond the present, the little child needs not only adult oversight but adult foresight as well.

Because she or he is mostly born worry-free about worldly dangers and focused on the present, parental precaution, preparation, and prediction teach what to watch out for as she or he grows. Anticipating possible harm allows the child to avoid unwanted possibilities: “I was taught this might get me hurt, so I didn’t do it.”

In this sense, parental worry can be child-protective when it warns:

“Don’t go off with strangers; they might harm you!”

“Don’t cross streets without looking both ways!”

“Don’t play with fire; you could get burnt!”

Worrying About Adolescents

With the onset of their child’s adolescence, parents tend to worry more as their growing child’s drives to independence and individuality create more exposure to older risks. Parents don’t want to keep their child worry-free, but sensibly watchful.

For example, think of more social risk-taking in high school like the three exciting new D’s—dating, driving, and drinking. Parents can’t afford to turn a blind eye to these activities. So they spend time discussing how to do them mindfully and safely. They turn worry into worthwhile discussions of possible dangers worth worrying about:

  • “Before you blindly date someone, get to socially know them better first.”
  • “Driving creates deadly risks, so pay attention and avoid distraction.”
  • “Treat alcohol as a potent drug that can distort decision-making.”

Worry wonders about what is going on, and what might be happening and considers risks to inform understanding. Teaching worry can teach mindfulness.

Complexity of Worry

Come adolescence, there can be this inequity: While curious young people are more drawn to adventure and excitement, cautious parents are more focused on avoiding danger and injury.

Worrying can work well and it can work badly:

  • To the good, worrying can be predictive, protective, and preventive.
  • To the bad, worrying can be disturbing, distorting, and discouraging.

Creating worries can alarm; denying worries can risk harm. In both cases, parental worry can be a complicated choice.

  • There is helpful worrying about what you can prepare for, like some new freedom such as young love that needs to be carefully discussed. This is worry to take predictive responsibility: “Do this to keep it safe.”
  • There is helpless worrying about what you are powerless to prevent, like the physical risks that come with playing contact sports. This is letting worry go with acceptance of responsibility: “Playing the game can hurt you.”
  • There can be harmful worrying when fearful parents discourage youthful growth like part-time employment and working with older peers. This is letting worry limit experience: “They can have unhealthy influence.”

Most parents do a mix of all three.

Worry Conflicts

Between parent and teenager, worry can be a growing source of contention. While parents believe in worrying as a watchful warner of possible danger, their adolescent may treat their worrying as a doubt caster, a vote of no confidence, and a suspicious spoiler of tempting fun. So unfolds more frequent conflict between adult and adolescent:

Teenager: “You worry too much!”

Parent: “Well, you don’t worry enough!”

Teenager: “You always see the down side!”

Parent: “You need to think what can go wrong!”

Teenager: “Worry shows how you don’t trust me!”

Parent: “Worry shows how we distrust your world!”

Teenager: “I tell you less so maybe you will worry less!”

Parent: “The less we’re told, the more we’re prone to worry!”

Teenager: “You worry about stuff that probably won’t happen!”

Parent: “We worry about what we believe could possibly occur!”

Teenager: “If I worried about everything, I’d never try anything new!”

Parent: “If you worried a little more you might avoid what’s dangerous to do!”

Managing Worry

Who’s right? Often, they both are, because worry can be double-edged. It can be realistic or fanciful, considered or impulsive, protective or distrustful, insightful or alarmist, sensible or irrational, perceptive or distorting, helpful or harmful.

Worry is complicated to manage because it is a mix of emotion and reason. Because worry is fearful thinking, it’s tempting to let the feeling rule. However, while fear is a good emotional informant (“I’m scared!”), it can be an irrational advisor (“It’s time to panic!”)

So, when it comes to worry, be alert to the emotion, but take time to let judgment rule before deciding what to think, what to say, or how to act. Asking for more information can often help.

When to Worry

Worry can create conflict over risks the teenager, for freedom’s sake, wants to deny that the parent, for safety’s sake, wants to consider. So, parents: when to worry?

  • Worry when you wonder what is safe to do.
  • Worry to imagine unwanted possibilities.
  • Worry to question what is right or wise.
  • Worry to act with vigilance and care.
  • Worry over what you can’t control.
  • Worry over what you can control.
  • Worry to predict and prepare.
  • Worry to restrain impulse.
  • Worry to take your time.
  • Worry to watch out.
  • Worry to talk.

So maybe the best advice is not "Don't worry!" Rather it is: "Worry well!" Use it not to fantasize, exaggerate, and alarm; but to predict, prepare, and prevent.

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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