What to do if your teen is stressed about the future

Mother and daughter sitting down listening

It’s very common for teens to experience stress about the future, especially if they are nearing the end of school. 

They might be feeling uncertain about what comes next, comparing themselves unfavourably to their peers or struggling with various expectations – personal, family, academic or cultural. They may also be anxious about the future in general, or fear failing their final exams.

As a parent or carer, you play an important role in supporting them and helping them to keep things in perspective. Here’s how you can help your teen to manage their stress during this key time in their lives. 

How do I know if my teen is stressed? 

To best support your teen with managing stress, it helps to first recognise the signs. These can include:

  • constantly talking about the future

  • seeking lots of reassurance that the future will be okay

  • trying to be ‘perfect’ in their school work or other areas (perfectionism)

  • headaches, sleep issues, changes in eating habits

  • always being tired, or lacking energy or motivation

  • talking negatively about themselves

  • feeling angry or irritable a lot

  • often being worried, anxious or nervous

  • feeling down or depressed

  • forgetfulness

  • increased alcohol or drug use.

Ways to help your teen manage stress about the future

Final exams can be a big source of stress for teens as they near the end of their school years. After putting in so much work and being under all that pressure, it can often feel like a ‘make or break’ moment. Here are some ways that you can support them.

Offer some perspective

Reassure your teenager that, while exams are important, they aren’t everything in life. Your teen will probably have heard this reassurance before, but hearing it from you can be really helpful.

You could share your own experiences of exams, and even mention people who didn’t do very well in exams but who have gone on to do great things in life. 

You could also remind them that there are many different pathways in life if your teen doesn't achieve the final mark they were hoping for. Alternative career pathways include apprenticeships, internships, bridging studies and a wide range of courses

Explore different options for their future 

There are so many different ways for your teen to get from where they are now to where they want to be. For example, if they’re set on starting a specific uni degree or TAFE course, you could sit down with them and prepare two plans. 

  1. Plan A would involve getting into the course.

  2. Plan B might involve choosing a different course to study or taking a gap year while they decide what they’ll do next. 

Explain that the aim of having a Plan B isn’t to give up on Plan A, but rather to put their primary plan on pause for a while if necessary. If they’re unsure of a Plan A, they could consider chatting to a teacher or career counsellor about it for some added perspective.

There are lots of practical ways you can support your teen with this:

  • Help them to research options for alternative pathways to where they want to go.

  • Explore career options with them or encourage them to see a career counsellor.

  • Help them to prepare for job interviews by pretending to be the interviewer and asking them questions. Start with these common interview questions from SEEK.

  • Help them to access and connect with mentors and support networks, such as the ReachOut Online Community.

  • Look into programs or placements at your teen’s preferred university, TAFE or college that can assist with enrolling. (This can help take some of the pressure off them.)

Show them it’s okay to sit with uncertainty

While none of us can know exactly what will happen in the future, we can certainly learn to tolerate not knowing. From here, we can practise responding as best we can to what’s happening in the present.

One way to build up tolerance for uncertainty is by doing small things with your teen differently. For example, you might try cooking a meal with them without using a recipe, or you could pick a random TV show to watch without knowing anything about it. 

You could also encourage your teen to sit with uncertainty by changing their language from ‘I hope [that happens]’ to ‘I wonder [if that will happen]’. Using the word ‘wonder’ can help them to sit with uncertainty, rather than fear it.

Encourage fun, relaxation and self-care

Encourage your teen to be kind to themselves and realistic in their thinking. It’s important to listen to your teen and not to discount their concerns. Remind them to practise self-care and positive self-talk

What your teen finds fun and relaxing will be unique to them. But taking the time for these activities will help them to put aside negative thoughts and worries (at least for a little while). 

Encourage them to try out some positive distractions, such as taking a yoga or gym class, making or looking at art, listening to music, surfing, watching a TV show you both love, or playing a board game.

Practise slowing down

If your teen is spending a lot of time on screens, they might start to feel overwhelmed by the news or compare themselves unfavourably to their peers. Help them to slow down by practising some breathing exercises, or doing stretching, yoga or a mindfulness meditation

These activities will reduce physical tension and the bodily symptoms of stress, helping them to clear their mind. And it’s something you can both do together (and have fun while doing it).

Help them to work out what’s in their control

Teens can become stressed about things that aren’t fully in their control, like what results they’ll get in their final exams or what next year will look like. While they have some control over these things, there are also a lot of external factors at play. 

Encourage them to identify a few things they feel are in their control. For example, it could be as simple as keeping their room or desk tidy, or being reliable about taking the dog for a walk, or even how they can maintain their friendships and relationships. This helps to show movement and positive change in some areas of their life when they don’t have control over other areas. 

Talk about the things they value

Focusing on the things they value or appreciate in life can help teens to manage future stress. Practising gratitude has been proven to boost resilience and reduce stress. When you feel like you can handle life’s curveballs, you’ll be less stressed about the future.

Starting a gratitude journal (it can just be a note on their phone) will help them to refocus on the good things in their life. You could try asking them each evening what they are grateful for, if they feel like sharing.

Here are some journalling prompts that you can share with your teen:

  1. What are three things you’re grateful for today, and why?

  2. Reflect on a challenging situation you’ve overcome. What have you learnt from it?

  3. What are three simple pleasures in your life you’re grateful for?

Encourage them to stay connected

Suggest to your teen that their friends are probably experiencing similar worries and that it can really help to talk about them together. They could even compare their Plan A/Plan B with their friends’ plans, to share ideas. 

If they don’t feel comfortable talking with friends about their concerns, encourage them to seek out support online via the ReachOut Online Community, where they can chat safely with other young people who are going through similar things. 

Help them to get more support

Remind your teen that they don’t have to work everything out by themselves. You could help them set up a meeting with someone suitable to get advice and suggestions. This might be:

  • a teacher they get along with

  • their year coordinator

  • someone from the school wellbeing team

  • a school career counsellor

  • someone who works at the uni or TAFE admissions office.

If they’re feeling really overwhelmed, it could help to speak with a mental health professional who can help support them through this time. ReachOut PeerChat is a free tool for young people, where they can get text-based support with a peer worker. 

While it’s really common to experience some future stress, it’s helpful to accept that no one can predict the future. Remind your teen to focus on the things they can control and to trust that, whatever happens, they will be able to cope.