Stressed Out Teens? How to Help Teens Set Goals That Feel Good

By Rayne Lacko, coauthor of Dream Up Now: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery

Stressed Out Teens? How to Help Teens Set Goals That Feel GoodYou don’t need a magic wand to help young people break free of negative feelings and claim a clear vision of a positive future. Here’s a research-based goal plan that can rekindle teens’ self-motivation.

As they say good-bye to childhood, 75 percent of people between ages 12 and 25 lack a clear sense of purpose. Not knowing who they want to be and how to move in that direction can leave teens feeling frustrated, anxious, and unhappy. When adults assure young people, “You’re doing great just as you are,” they risk implying that the anxiety or frustration teens feel is as good as it will ever get. Teens are often overwhelmed with expectations and self-imposed demands. However, when they break free from trying to do everything and focus on doing only what’s important, they can reach their goals faster—and feel better doing it.

Remain Anxious or Risk Success?

For teens, moving from more difficult emotions to more positive ones that help them become their best self is a journey of self-discovery. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one in three adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. For teens who are affected by anxiety, or who regularly interact with anxious peers, setting goals to feel better can be life-changing, helping them expand, grow, and become their best self by design and action.

Some teens don’t have deep goals, or have counter-productive behaviors, like watching social media for hours or not feeling in good shape, which can result in a negative self-image. Some adolescents are reticent to speak out in class or try too hard for fear that they may risk failing in front of their peers. But there’s more gained by doing something badly than not at all. Often failure is a great teacher and companion on the road to achieving a goal. Rather than beating themselves up, it’s useful for adolescents approaching adulthood to practice the lifelong habit of taking responsibility for oneself, both for their well-being and as an act of self-love.

Radical Self-Visioning

A deep-rooted connection to why a goal is valuable to the teen and how it will make them feel can motivate teens to take on the tasks necessary to achieve their goals. Studies show that teens who focus on future goals and consider the consequences of their actions are more motivated at school. Part of gaining focus involves believing in the possibility of achieving a desirable feeling or goal. It’s easy for a teen to say, “I want a car,” or “I want to make it onto the basketball team.” But sticking it out to accomplish these goals through repeated effort is radically influenced by why the teen wants it. A teen’s personal why is centered in their self-image, and it is their best motivator in moving toward becoming a person capable of achieving the goal.

Using Section A of the Goal Plan Activity, lead teens to list five desirable visions for their future, and most importantly why they want each.

Section A of the Goal Planning Activity Handout

Connect the Achievement to a Desired Emotion

Who we are is a representation of how we feel about ourselves. A teen may see a popular social media influencer or performer who has a seemingly luxurious lifestyle and want to accomplish a similar external goal. However, that envied individual may privately struggle with self-image issues, depression, or suicidal thoughts. Connecting an external goal with a desired emotion (internal goal) safeguards the teen from unwittingly creating a result that doesn’t improve their emotional well-being. This is commonly advised in the adage, “Be careful what you wish for.” If a goal is to try out for the basketball team, an emotion the teen may want to feel could be connectedness, purpose, or confidence—not stress, pressure, or fear of inadequacy. If a teen is pursuing a goal and their actions aren’t cultivating their desired emotion, rather than give up, they can improve the original goal or take new actions. It’s vital to honor the feeling (internal reward) over the situation pursued (external goal).

Using Section B of the Goal Plan Activity, encourage teens to refine their list from Section A, paring it down to their top three goals, and then matching each goal to one emotion that they want to feel by achieving it. It can be helpful to consider that feelings such as “confidence” or “connectedness” offer multiple benefits: a confident or connected person is likelier to enjoy positive rewards in their social, academic, work, and family lives.

Second B of the Goal Planning Activity

The Art of Doing Less, but Better

A teen who tried unsuccessfully to achieve a goal in the past may feel discouraged. Perhaps they didn’t prioritize the goal enough. Or maybe they didn’t have a clear picture of what the successfully completed goal would look like and how it would feel to achieve it. Or, if they did stay focused on their goal, maybe they exhausted themselves trying 100 different ways to achieve it instead of focusing on the single most effective path. A good goal is specific. By avoiding dozens of low-return tasks that suck time and energy, teens can purposefully choose one action that feels good and offers the highest return.

Goals and feelings go together. For teens who struggle to find the time to work on their goals, it’s important they learn to say no to things that don’t matter and instead choose one action that helps create the emotion they want to cultivate. If a teen wants to start a video game livestream, for example, they might choose when to stream and how often, keeping in mind that whatever action they take must cultivate the feeling they most desire. As their stream gains traction, they’ll be consistently rewarded with the desired positive feeling attached to the goal. Committing to just one goal allows teens to practice saying no to distractions and pursue what they truly want to achieve and feel. By dedicating themselves to work on only one goal at a time, teens can achieve their goal faster, making room for new goals to be set throughout the year.

Using Section C of the Goal Plan Activity, choose one goal, one desired emotion, and one strategically chosen task that cultivates the desired emotion. Teens can get creative drawing a picture of achieving their goal. Bonus: Invite teens to consider how much easier it will be to accomplish their next goal once they’ve developed the habit of feeling their best.

Section C of the Goal Planning Activity

Teens are free to list all actions they’re unwilling to do (things they will say no to) in pursuit of their goal. The one action they do choose to commit to must feel good and offer the highest return every time they work on achieving their goal. Then invite teens to make a specific plan for how they will invest their time, when the goal will be accomplished, and how they’ll know when the goal is complete.

Cut the Stress and Do Only What Gets Results

Teens can choose their future and their feelings by taking control of how they focus their time. Achieving a goal isn’t a matter of luck; teens must be intentional, be clear about what they want and why it’s important, and pursue a plan of action that feels great. Use this Goal Plan Activity to help teens move from anxiety and frustration to their best self in 2022.

Goal Planning Activity

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Halvorson, Heidi Grant. 9 Things Successful People Do Differently. Harvard Business Review Press, 2018.

Hyatt, Michael. Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals. Baker Books, 2019.

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McKeown, Greg. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Crown Books, 2020.

Ray, Betty. “How to Help Young People Transition into Adulthood.” Greater Good, University of California, Berkeley, 21 October 2019,

Scarborough, Megan K., et al. “Enhancing Adolescent Brain Development Through Goal-Setting Activities.” Social Work 55, no. 3 (July 2010): 276–278.

Rayne LackoRayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.

Dream Up NowRayne is the coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.

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