Consideration of an interesting trend arose from a study published this past September in the journal Child Development—the number of teenagers engaging in “adult” activities such as driving, drinking and dating has declined, and no clear link to amount of homework or Internet time has been determined. In fact, the study did not indicate whether this trend is necessarily good or bad, only demonstrated that teens have been increasingly putting off more adult-like activities since the study started in 1976. While many adolescents are still engaging in typical teenage behavior like dating and driving, it can be the more concrete elements of adulthood, like finding a job, that give pause. It is when these decisions are motivated by fear about the future that they become a problem.
In considering this new research, the connection to a recent New York Times report on high rates of teenage anxiety can’t help but come to mind. In this in-depth article, anxiety was shown to be a major and often debilitating problem in teens, with 62 percent saying they had felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. Overbooking oneself in too many activities as well as internalizing fears and doubts about future employment, education or well-being can be major sources of stress, but, much like delaying adulthood, teens have different reasons for their anxiety. But there is likely to be a connection between rising anxiety and slower acceptance of adult responsibilities. The question, a difficult one, becomes one of how to help.
Students are often hyper-aware of the number of choices they have available to them: lists of college majors at universities are long, class schedules are customizable and internship and volunteer opportunities span fields of all kinds. Exploring choices can give a sense of freedom and excitement, but decisions are also a common source of stress. It could be that today’s teens feel the weight of tons of decisions on them, and that making the wrong choice, be it college or major or career path, can lead to future demise. The New York Times report quoted teenage students saying that they were often overwhelmed by the long list of things they had to do, and that list can feel even longer when options seem endless.
If the number of decisions is indeed part of the reason adolescents are feeling more anxious and putting off adulthood, perhaps a way to help anxiety is to narrow down some of these decisions. There is a balance here—the number of options when it comes to future goals is something to be appreciated, but choosing an option to pursue also has to be part of the equation. Talking to adults or doing volunteer work can give an idea about a path to follow, and having a direction can alleviate some of that decision anxiety. In transitioning to college, choosing a major early on and having career goals of some kind can make registering for classes or finding internships more straightforward and will make the to-do list more practical and attainable. At the same time, remembering that this direction can and will change should be reassuring as well. Sometimes the best way to confront anxiety about future decisions is to practice making manageable ones now.