Teens Need to Get Good at Future-Thinking

As I was coaching a twelve-year-old girl, I concluded with this summary: “In the future, some of your friends will want you to conform, so you’ll need to stand up for yourself and be the kind of person you want to be.”

Her reply: “What do you mean by ‘in the future’?”

Her question took me by surprise. But then I remembered that many kids her age haven’t built a robust concept of the future.

So I explained: “Today you’re still on vacation. But in two weeks, you’ll be going back to school. That will happen in two weeks in the future. Last year you were in the fifth grade. That’s in the past. Now you’re in the sixth grade. That’s in the present. A year from now, in the future, you’ll be in the seventh grade. And even further in the future, you’ll be going to college.”

She nodded, which I took to mean that she understood what I was saying.

I empathize with teens who don’t think much about the future. After all, the future doesn’t exist, except in one’s imagination. Neither does the past, except in one’s memory. We remember past moments of present experience, and we imagine possible future moments. But in the end, only present moments are fully real. Memories and imaginings are real mental events, but our memories of the past are incomplete and change with time, and imaginings of the future often never come to pass.

For example, one morning I was standing in the pool at my fitness center before starting to swim laps. My plan was to swim one more lap than my last workout, as I continue to rehab my left shoulder. I imagined what it would be like to be standing in this spot a half-hour in the future, having completed 16 laps. I thought: Right now, in the present, I’m ready to begin. The end of my 16 laps will happen in the future.

And a half-hour later, having finished my 16 laps, I remembered that a half-hour in the past I had imagined this moment, an experience that is now a memory . I had 16 laps to swim, but what was once an imagined future was now my present reality. Now in the present I imagined that “in the future” I would swim even more laps. It was a fun mental exercise to accompany my physical exercise.

It’s important for teenagers to become practiced at future-thinking; otherwise, they’ll have trouble working to achieve things they want. Parents need to encourage kids to think more often about the future, because without considering possible outcomes, why would a child want to:

  • Learn from mistakes
  • Foresee unwanted consequences
  • Solve problems
  • Make good decisions
  • Care about the impact of their behavior on others
  • Set goals
  • Make and carry out plans
  • Start and finish projects

Adults can do more to encourage future-thinking than I did with my explanation to the young girl. They can ask questions that get young people to consider consequences, possibilities, goals, and plans. I find it helpful to get a child to visualize the future. In my books, Conversations with the Wise Uncle and Conversations with the Wise Aunt, the adult mentor uses a length of string to illustrate a time-line of a child’s life, marking past events, the present, and possible futures.

When you observe small children at play, you know they’re fully engaged in the present moment. And if you try to get them to think about things that haven’t happened yet, you’re likely to get blank stares. Future-thinking is an aspect of critical thinking. As adolescent children mature and prepare for their adult lives, parents, teachers, coaches and mentors can help them improve their ability to consider the future.

My book, How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain, can help. It has a section that describes ways to encourage future-thinking.

Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, including  “The No. 1 Way to Nurture the Bond with Your Teen.”