Anxiety isn’t a problem. It’s an important and useful system that helps us make good decisions under duress. It only becomes a problem however when this system is continuously activated, causing our body and brain to believe it’s in a highly stressful or fearful situation even when it’s not. Teens with anxiety problems either avoid situations that could trigger their anxiety (talking to peers or going to school for example) or attempt to exert unreasonable control over these same situations. Anxiety can show up in a variety of different forms for teens including angry outbursts, panic attacks, physical symptoms like stomach or headaches, withdrawal and avoidance or drug and alcohol use. Anxiety is much more common than most of us realize and is often a precursor to depression. 25% of 13-18 year-olds could be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Many kids and teens with anxiety disorders have parents who also struggle with anxiety. Parenting an anxious kid can be really hard, particularly if you’re struggling with anxiety yourself.
Here are 7 tips that can help you and your anxious child.
1. Avoid accommodating or demanding. It’s all too easy to accommodate anxious teens.This means colluding in their attempts to avoid feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Examples of this could be letting your child stay home from school or doing her chores for her. The flip side of accommodating is demanding. Demanding is asking too much of your child without consideration of their very real worries and fears. Both of these approaches exacerbate the problems your teen is already having.
2. Provide both confidence and compassion. This is the preferred alternative to number one above. Anxious kids tend to avoid difficult or uncertain situations. They lack confidence in their ability to handle these moments. He needs you to believe in his ability to solve problems and manage his anxiety as well as showing that you get that what he’s going through is really hard. For school refusal for example, a balanced approach may look something like, “I get that you’re feeling really worried or stressed about going to school, but it’s really important and I know you can do it. I’m not going to come pick you up but why don’t we come up with a plan to help you if you get overwhelmed while you’re there.”
3. Manage your own anxiety. When your teen is going through a difficult or anxious experience, your challenge is to manage your teens anxiety as well as your own. 65% of kids with an anxious parent will develop an anxiety disorder. Mother’s behavior appears to be more influential than father’s when it comes to anxiety. For most parents, their anxiety shows up in the form of micro managing and trying too hard to control their teen’s behavior.
4. Slow down. Anxious kids and teens tend to get overwhelmed easily. When your teen is struggling in any given moment, it’s likely that he’s not processing very much information. That’s not the time to expect him to think about or understand your perspective. Instead, you may need to slow down, take a break to give him time to process, or just move on.
5. Make sure they’re learning coping skills. Help your teen develop and utilize a large toolbox of skills and practices to help them manage their anxiety. Examples could be exercise, yoga/meditation, time in nature, talking with someone, taking slow deep breaths, going for a walk, art, writing, etc. Practicing these and using them regularly is essential. It’s best to get outside help with this from coaches, teachers, counselors etc. Make a point of practicing these as well.
6. Don’t be fooled by perfectionism. Many teens manifest their anxiety by trying to be perfect in everything they do. Perfectionism is all or nothing thinking. She may excel academically, athletically, socially, behaviorally. However, this very same teen may carry a deep fear of failure and rejection as well. If she doesn’t learn to handle failure and uncertainty now, she’s likely to struggle mightily after high school when she can no longer “measure up” the way she thinks she has to.
7. Provide positive reinforcement. Most highly anxious kids tend to focus and dwell on their shortcomings and mistakes. They tend to forget exceptions and successes. When your teen does cope with a situation well or takes a risk, be sure to acknowledge them for it. Consider documenting these positive examples to show later when they can’t remember them.
Today’s teens are a highly anxious group. Despite our best intentions, as parents we often inadvertently contribute to this problem. While there’s no quick fix, there is a lot we can do right now to help. By slowing down, believing in them, remaining compassionate and managing your own anxiety you will gradually begin to notice positive changes in your teen regardless of whether she asked for it or not.