Tolerating Uncertainty

Many anxious youth struggle with the uncertainty of life. This is especially true for children and teens with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder. These youth are afraid of the unknown, often believing that terrible things are likely to happen and that they will be unable to cope. As a result, these children and teens strive for predictability and certainty at all times, becoming anxious, rigid and irritable when they are asked to manage the unknowns or “go with the flow” as the expected becomes unexpected. Yet, life isn’t predictable and there are no guarantees. Searching for this elusive “ghost of certainty” only leads to more worry and doubt when the certainty fails to appear. Fortunately, as a parent or caregiver of an anxious child or teen, you can teach your child how to increase his/her ability to tolerate uncertainty. As tolerance for uncertainty increases, fear and anxiety will decrease. 

The first step is to talk with your child and explain that the search for absolute certainty is futile. Use examples from your own experiences to demonstrate how uncertainty is everywhere and there is no “sure thing.” For example, remind your child of a recent time when the weather forecaster predicted rain but the day was dry, or your teen was certain she failed an exam but passed with flying colors. You will not have to look far to find personal examples.These examples will help your child understand that learning to live with uncertainty is a critical skill. Once your child is open to this idea, you can then explain that instead of seeking certainty, the new goal is to strengthen his/her “tolerance muscles.” To do this, you and your child will design a series of experiments that ask your child to engage in an uncertain situation, while testing out 2 main hypotheses: 1. Bad things will happen with uncertainty, and, 2. I won’t be able to cope. Like any exercise or experiment that involves facing a fear, it is important to start small. The following are some examples you can encourage your child to try:

  • Completing homework without asking family whether it was done correctly (or only asking once)
  • Calling a friend spontaneously and asking him or her to come over to play without making plans in advance
  • Doing things that your child has been avoiding (e.g. joining a recreational team because s/he might not be good enough, or watching a movie because it might be too scary)
  • Deliberately making a small mistake on homework so that it isn’t perfect (crossing something out; making it a little messy)
  • Arriving to school a few minutes late
  • Talking to someone in school without planning the conversation
  • Saying, “I don’t know” when the teacher asks a question
  • Looking out the window for a few seconds when the teacher is talking

Once your child has chosen some situations, you are then ready to make predictions and test them out. The following form can be a useful and fun way to chart your youth’s progress:


I will tolerate….

My anxiety predicts this will happen

(catastrophic rating 0-10)

But what actually happened was…

Making a purposeful mistake on my quiz

I will fail the whole quiz and my friends won’t talk to me.  8

I lost 3 points but still got an A. My friends didn’t even know. 2


Note: In addition to intolerance for uncertainty, some children also want things to be perfect. If you are concerned your child might be a perfectionist, you can read more about overcoming perfectionism.