How to help your anxious teen achieve their goals


Anxiety and avoidance go hand in hand. Since anxiety is a response to a perceived threat or danger, it’s perfectly natural that when your teen is feeling anxious, turning away from whatever is provoking that feeling feels like the logical thing to do. While it might feel like a helpful strategy in the short term, it only serves to make the anxiety worse over time. Helping your teenager to identify what matters most and to set goals is a way to help them turn in the direction of what’s important, taking their anxiety along for the ride.

We all have things we want to do and achieve, and teenagers are no different. Helping them formulate their goals, plan how they’re going to achieve them and then supporting their progression will do wonders for their mental health.

What can you do to help?

In addition to building their self-confidence, striving towards a goal creates opportunities for your teen to engage in activities that hold meaning, experience the positive emotions that come from progress, enjoy the sense of pride and achievement that comes from accomplishing their goal and experience opportunities to connect with you and others on their journey, building relationships. Each and every one of these outcomes are the foundations of flourishing.

Instead of waiting for the anxiety to pass

The process of setting goals and then setting out to achieve them is going to help your anxious teen practice what’s called ‘goal-directed action’. Instead of waiting for anxiety to pass, goals empower teenagers to choose behaviours that move them the direction of what they care about, despite their anxiety or other obstacles; all along building in them the strength, courage and confidence to live a vibrant, meaningful, rich life.

1. Start with values 

To create meaningful goals it’s important to start with values. We all have them. They’re the things in life that matter to us most. Our values are our principles, and standards of behaviour that we uphold ourselves to. They come from within us, and we’re free to choose them. Teenagers have their very own set of values but if you start by asking them what they are, it’s bound to end in disappointment! It’s a really hard question to answer without any resources. It’s much more effective to give your teen an opportunity to choose their values (what matters most to them & what they stand for) from a list. Get them to start by casting a wide net. Here’s a list to get you both started.

Acceptance       Accuracy          Achievement      Adventure          
Altruism          AmbitionAssertiveness     Authenticity        
Being the best    Belonging        Boldness    Calmness
Caring                  Challenge          Cheerfulness     Commitment      
Community         CompassionCompetitivenessConnection         
Contentment      ContributionControl                Cooperation
Courage               CuriosityCreativity           Dependability    
Determination  DiligenceDiscretion          Discipline           
Elegance             Empathy Encouragement Enjoyment
Enthusiasm       Equality Excellence          Excitement         
Expertise        FairnessFaith                  Family                  
Fitness                FlexibilityForgiveness      Freedom            
Fun                      Generosity       Gratitude         Health              
Honesty           HonourHumility          Independence 
Industry        InquisitivenessIntimacy            Joy
Justice                LeadershipLegacy                Love                      
Loyalty                   Make a differenceMastery                 Mindfulness          
Obedience          Openness         Order                 Originality         
Patriotism PerfectionPersistencePreparedness 
Professionalism PrudenceQuality          Reliability
ResourcefulnessRespect Responsibility Rigor  
Safety   Self-control Selflessness Self-reliance 
Sensitivity Serenity Service Skilfulness 
Speed   Spontaneity Stability  Strategic  
Success SupportivenessThankfulnessThoroughness 
ThoughtfulnessTimelinessTolerance          Traditionalism   
Tranquillity Trust Truth-seeking  Understanding
UniquenessUnity Usefulness Vision      

2. Evaluate top values

When your teen has circled the values that are important it’s time to start a conversation about what was chosen and why. You’ll know whether or not to carve out time to talk or to casually throw a question their way! Open ended questions are always good. You could simply start by saying “tell me a little about why you chose ‘originality’ as a value…” and then see where the conversation goes. It’s a good idea for you to do this too, then compare lists. Sharing your values and showing your teen you remember and respect their values and why they matter is a wonderful way to strengthen your bond and understanding of each other.

3. Choose a value to work towards

With a clearer understanding of what’s important to them, your teen can begin to look at their values and contemplate what they can do to live more fully by them. It’s natural at this stage for some teens to feel disconnected with their values, now that they can see them in black and white. This is their opportunity to reconnect with their values by choosing a value to ‘work on’. A value to align their behaviour with as they move forward.

4. Time to set a goal (or two)

Say your teen chose ‘adventure’ as a value but struggles to do adventurous things because their anxiety gets in the way. With the knowledge that adventure is one of their carefully chosen values, combined with a willingness to move in the direction of this value, your teenager is taking a step towards doing what matters despite their anxiety. In his work with anxious teenagers Dr Chris Peterson talks to teens about considering ‘the good stuff’ and ‘the challenging stuff’ as being two sides of the same coin. Can’t have one without the other. Talk to your teenager about the challenging ‘stuff’ they might encounter as they pursue their goal and how they might handle any challenges that arise.

5. Start Small

Small, achievable goals are the place to start. Your adventurous teen might like to start by walking to the local shops alone to build confidence step-by-step towards the ultimate goal of an overseas gap year after school finishes. Remind them to reward themselves for achieving small goals, and to be kind to themselves if they don’t quite get there the first time.    

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