Navigating the ‘What If’s?’: Parenting Teenagers Who Struggle with FOBO

When I was growing up, the choices I made in a day were minimal. They consisted of what I would wear to school and who I would call first on the telephone the moment I stepped into the house in the afternoon. 

These days, however, life is filled with choices. From the styles of jeans we could wear, to the increasing brands of carbonated water we could drink, to how we choose to spend our time, those of us in the West have more opportunities and more options than ever before. 

For teens especially,  the combination of social media, the pressure to succeed, and the limitless options available to them often hinders them from making any choice at all. 

Enter the new phenomenon FOBO (fear of better options). With so many choices to be made, teens now fear picking the wrong one and thus missing out on a better option. Psychologist Barry Swartz calls this the “paradox of choice.” He argues that having so many choices in life makes us not freer, but rather, paralyzes us. 

Teenagers likewise struggle to make decisions, fearing they might make the wrong one. And when they make a decision that turns out to have a problem with it (as everything in life does!), they regret their choice and begin to think of all the other things they could have and should have chosen. 

Teens become stuck in a “what if” cycle of second guessing. What if I had joined that club instead of this one? What if I had played a different sport? What if I had chosen that college or major or job? FOBO also creates a hesitancy to commit. Teens fear that if something better comes along, they will miss out on it. 

In a culture filled with endless options, parents can help teens navigate their FOBO by helping them learn to identify their fear, point them to the God who is greater, limit their options, and teach and model commitment making.

Help them identify their fear: 

Like any emotion we experience, it is important to identify and name what we feel. As you talk with your teenagers about their hesitancy to commit to a decision, ask questions that help them identify their fears. What are you feeling as you consider whether to attend your friends birthday party this weekend? What feelings do you have about playing soccer this season as opposed to running track? What do you feel when you consider applying to this or that college? 

Be sure to help them explore the thoughts they have about such decisions, as thoughts play a significant role in emotional responses. What are the “What if?” thoughts they have about a decision? This helps teens develop greater insight into how they experience and respond to life. The more insight they have, the easier it is to address their fears.

Remind them that God is Greater

The Bible has a lot to say about fear. It acknowledges that life is often fearful and teaches that our lesser fears are calmed as we trade those fears for a greater fear, the fear of the Lord (Matt. 10:26-31). The fear we have for the Lord is unlike other fears. To fear the Lord is to love, honor, awe, revere, trust, and obey him; to see him as greater than all other fears. 

The best way to grow in this fear is to grow in the knowledge of who God is and what he has done. We can help our teens do this by reminding them of God’s character. Our God is holy, righteous, and good. He is sovereign over all things, including the smallest circumstances of their lives. 

For those who fear better options, they can trust that our good God is at work in all the details. He is never surprised by the decisions they face or the not-so-wise choices they make. He uses even their wandering ways for good, shaping them into the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28). They can trust him with their choices, knowing he rules over all things with his providential care.

Consider Limiting Options: 

When you go to the store to pick up a gallon of milk, long gone are the days of choosing between skim, 2%, and whole. The multiple milk alternatives available are just a snapshot of the many choices we are faced with on a daily basis. When teens struggle to make decisions, it helps to limit their options. 

We can help teens by narrowing down their choices. For example, instead of your teen selecting from colleges all across the country, draw a two-hour radius from your home and narrow down the list to those that fit within that circle. 

Teach and Model Commitment Making: 

Making a decision and sticking to it is important. After all, our God is a covenant-making and keeping God. He didn’t save us and make us his own only until something better came along; he saved us for eternity out of his steadfast love and commitment to us. 

Parents can teach and model making commitments. Teach teens the value of keeping one’s word. Keep your word with your teen. Follow through on your own commitments. When you promise to attend your son’s soccer game, keep your commitment. If there’s a family rule about finishing homework before phone use, stick to the rule and any consequences when it’s broken. Point out to your teen God’s commitment to his people, no matter what. 

Provide Practical Decision-Making Tools

The Bible provides wisdom for life, showing us what honors and glorifies the Lord. Parents can help teens make decisions on utilizing their time or what paths to pursue for the future by pointing them to the wisdom of God’s word.

As they face a decision, help them consider: Are the choices before them honoring to God? Do they violate his moral commands? Do they hurt others? Will they help or hinder the teens spiritual growth? 

While our teenagers’ struggles may differ from our own generation’s challenges, as parents we need to patiently help them navigate the choices before them, pointing them to the God who is greater than FOBO:  the one who rules over and directs their future with love, sovereignty, and wisdom. 

Christina Fox is a counselor, retreat speaker, and author of multiple books including Like Our Father: How God Parents Us and Why that Matters for Our Parenting. You can find her at .

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