Thank goodness for anxiety. It keeps us safe. I was recently walking through my neighborhood to pick up my daughter from school. As I approached one of the houses that I’ve walked by a hundred times, I saw a pitbul that I’m pretty sure was not supposed to be out. It saw me and started barking and running towards me. I froze. My heart was pounding and I felt scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It ran right up to me and stopped, sniffed my leg calmed down until it’s owner came out a few seconds later and yelled at it to come back in. My anxiety kept me safe in that situation.
Unfortunately, during adolescence, anxiety can easily become the norm instead of the exception. A lot of the kids I see describe physical and emotional experiences very similar to what I felt. But for them it’s about walking into class, going to the mall, giving a presentation or being in a group with people they don’t know. While the fear is irrational, it feels very real none the less. This way of being can become habitual and very difficult to get out of.
The topic of anxiety, particularly as it pertains to adolescents, is a big one and I have lots to say about it. I’ll be going into depth on this topic at my workshop called, Learn to Help Teens Cope with Stress and Anxiety, this Thursday, the 27th. There’s still room if you’re interested in joining us.
Below are 5 things that I think every parent should know about adolescent anxiety.
1. “Anxiety” is the physical symptoms associated with “worry” which are the negative thoughts that trigger those physical sensations. We can help adolescents by helping them shift their negative thoughts (from: “this is going to be awful!” to: ”this will suck but I’ll be ok.”) as well as coping with the physical symptoms (taking slow deep breaths to manage a stomach ache or shallow breathing). Ultimately, they need to learn that they can handle and get through the uncomfortable feelings instead of avoiding them.
2. Anxiety sensitivity is a malleable trait. Adolescence is the last and best opportunity to significantly lower the sensitivity one has to anxiety. The good news is that adolescence starts at around 12 and ends during the mid 20’s so there’s still time : )
3. Anxiety feeds on control and certainty. Overcoming anxiety requires tolerating uncertainty and grey. Avoidance makes it worse. You can help by increasing your child’s problem solving and self-reflection skills.
4. Adolescent brains are more sensitive to environmental stress. Any combination of genetics, a negative environment and the massive changes happening in their brain, can make adolescence a particularly difficult period for coping with and navigating anxiety
5. Anxiety triggers anxiety. As a parent, when your child gets anxious, notice when you start to feel more anxious in response. The more anxious we are, the more likely we are to be controlling, inflexible or enabling. This in turn, fosters more anxiety in our kids. Manage your own anxiety in front of your kid, even if you have to fake it!
If you have an adolescent that’s struggling with anxiety, I know how hard it can be to get them to do things, but hang in there and don’t give up. If you’re struggle with anxiety yourself, make sure you’re working through it because that may be the most direct way to help your child.