Every teen will experience anxiety at times: it’s part of the human experience and a natural response to fear or stress. Some kids will react to that stress more acutely than others. In some cases, anxiety may begin to negatively impact your teen’s day to day life. If your teen:
- Worries excessively,
- Is especially reluctant or fearful of trying new things,
- Struggles with changes in routine, and
- Experiences a lot of stress and concern about the future,
There are some things that you as a parent can do to help.
Identify worries and the triggers to those worries
Have your teen write down everything they have been worried about lately. They can share this with you or not. Have them reflect on everything they have written. Is there a theme or connection between the different worries? If so, are they able to point out the potential trigger that elicits these worries?
One big step to managing anxiety is knowing where it is coming from and what triggers it.
This way you can create strategies to prepare and perhaps prevent the anxiety, or at least avoid being surprised if it does manifest. Built into this awareness are also some strategies to manage it.
Have your teen classify the different anxieties they have
Identifying patterns can help your teen manage their anxiety. Have your teen ask themselves:
- Are their worries due to hypothetical situations?
- Are their worries due to current, past, or future events?
Write them down! It can be helpful to journal and track thought patterns and worries over time.
Learn to get comfortable with uncertainty
A good way to get comfortable with what makes us uncomfortable is to first pretend, or, said another way: Fake it ‘til you make it. For example, if your teen struggles with reading and re-reading a text message after it has been sent, agonizing over what they may have said that could be wrong, encourage them to refuse to check – just once— as if it never mattered. They could also delete the thread, or you could offer to help by taking the phone away for a few minutes afterward if they need your external support.
The simple action of deciding not to check, even if not checking feels scary, can be the first step in breaking anxiety-inducing habits. Here are some more examples:
- No re-reading an email or text over and over again before sending. Or vice versa— re-reading a text or email that was received. If the text is causing angst, just delete it.
- Agreeing to going with the flow when someone changes a plan even if the first instinct is to panic a little. Try it and see how it goes. Was it manageable? Try it again next time!
- Don’t obsess over what you choose to wear. Stop yourself anytime you start questioning what others will think or say about how you look, and focus on what you like.
Let your teen know that they will feel anxious doing these things, and that is OK, but assure them that with time and practice it will become less stressful.
Rethink the usefulness of worrying
Have your teen begin to question their reasons for why they worry and what the benefit of worrying is. Changing beliefs about the usefulness of worrying are not as simple as saying, “Worrying is bad.” In order for your teen to change their beliefs around worry, they need to think about whether their worries are accomplishing anything.
Instead of saying “Don’t worry”, ask: “Why are you worried? Will worrying about this change the outcome? How?”
When you can learn to reverse-engineer worrisome thoughts and realize that they are not particularly useful, it is easier to dismiss those type of thoughts the next time they creep up.
Be conscious about how you react and respond
Be sensitive to your teen’s anxiety and understand what can trigger it. People with anxiety in general are much more hyper-sensitive to how people perceive them and if they are being judged. This is especially the case for social anxiety. Therefore, you need to be hyper-aware of how you react to your teen’s behaviours and feelings, as frustrating as they might be.
Parents, ask yourself:
- Am I creating an environment where my teen feels safe to share with me and be around me?
- Am I loving with all of my responses?
- Is my response hurtful or uplifting?
- Is my response discouraging or encouraging?
- Can I say something productive?
- Can I say something helpful and supportive?
Here are some ways you can show your teen that you’re present and you care:
- Try to encourage your teen to make their own choices, while also learning to think about potential consequences of that choice.
- Pay attention to your teen’s hobbies and natural interests.
- Pay attention and accept the differences between you and your teen.
- Learn to support your teen by helping them wade through their negative emotions rather than quickly rescuing them from hurt and not learning the coping skills to deal with negative events or feelings.
- Become aware of any ways you may shame or punish your teen due to failure and not meeting expectations. This is one of the worst things you can do for not only your teen’s anxiety, but also for their self-esteem and perception of their self-worth.
- Be aware about what makes your teen upset and sad and what makes them positive and happy.
Showing your teen that your love is unconditional will position you to be their go-to person who they know they can turn to for support as they learn to manage their anxiety.
Anxiety can be a difficult condition to manage, particularly so when it happens during the adolescent years. But the good news is that with proper treatment and management, your teen can learn to cope with anxiety and push back against it. Over time and with practice, your teen will learn to master the strategies that work for her/him/them, and be able to face life’s challenges with confidence.
If you suspect your teen may be suffering from an anxiety disorder and you have not yet sought treatment, please seek a consult with an experienced clinician such as a child psychologist, counsellor or psychiatrist. If you aren’t sure where or how to find one, talk to your family doctor.