The ability to navigate uncertainty is the key variable for determining success in our disruptive age.
Uncertainty is particularly pronounced during the teenage years. This time period comes with big decisions and a lot of emotion — going to college, choosing a major, comparing yourself to friends, leaving home. If fear of the future is threatening to a teen or knocks them off their feet, that instability could greatly impact their happiness levels and overall life choices. As educators and mentors, it is our role to support teens in navigating uncertainty.
Uncertainty's Impact on Teens — From The Experts
We spoke with Raj Raghunathan, Professor of Marketing at the University of Texas at the McCombs School of Business and author of If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Happy?, about the concept of uncertainty and how it impacts teenagers:
"Uncertainty is very, very pronounced when you are in 11th or 12th grade and you're looking to go to college — that's a big decision point in your life. It is not surprising, therefore, that the teenage years are the absolute worst in terms of our happiness around the world. It becomes all the more important to understand how to deal with uncertainty at that age."
Most high school curriculums do not include courses that help students navigate their life. Parents are left to shepherd their teens through these years. And sometimes, teenagers are left to their own devices with no guidance.
Social Media's Impact
Uncertainty has become even more pronounced and magnified with the use of social media. Based on Raj's findings, social media has brought uncertainty into teen's lives in two major ways. The first is the over-accessibility of social media. “The presence of these digital devices and social media takes people away from their parents. They're in their own rooms, looking at all the devices — that lowers the amount of time that they get to spend with these mentors, and parents and wiser figures that could alleviate some of those negative feelings caused by uncertainty.”
Secondly, teens use social media platforms for damaging habits, such as comparison. “People tend to portray the best part of their lives. So you're sitting there as a teenager, going through all of this uncertainty, not sure where you're going to go and how your life is going to unfold, and then on top of it, you're looking at other people's lives that seem much better than your own average life. It's not a big surprise that depression has increased a lot among teenagers.” Each accomplishment posted on social media creates the illusion that a teen is one step behind their peers.
How Do We Help?
When teens aren’t given support to manage uncertainty, they end up feeling lost, inadequate, and depressed. According to The Department of Health and Human Services, about 3 million teenagers, ages 12-17, have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Teens need guidance in shifting their mindset to recognize feelings of uncertainty and understand that it is normal.
This shift in mindset needs to happen at a young age, according to Raj. “This is not something that you tackle only when somebody turns into a teenager, because by the time it's too late. You have to lay the foundation of what it means to deal with uncertainty and why is uncertainty not such a bad thing after all.”
Amplifying the Classroom
Building a mindset that welcomes life's twists and turns — instead of being afraid or angry — allows teens to live more fully in the present, focused on what is instead of what if. The classroom is the perfect space to build this mindset.
The strategies below help teens reframe their mindset to embrace uncertainty, rather than fear it:
Teach them to recognize + disrupt negative or "what-if?" spiral thinking when it starts.
Encourage them to find trusted mentors with life experience to help guide them through uncertain times. Remind them that people in their life have wisdom and it’s their job to welcome it.
Give them opportunities to safely step out of their comfort zone. This will help them learn that the sky won't fall when trying new things.
Introduce them to the “Be the friend” method — If a friend came to them with the situation they are in, what would they tell them as a friend? They should trust and take their own advice.
Contact our team to fuel the fire and get started on these strategies.