5 Ways You Can Help Your Anxious Teen
Lisa Macedo, LMFT
Are you struggling to find ways to help support your teen through their anxiety? Do you have conflicts that result from your efforts to help? These tips can help guide you to assist your teen in better managing and ultimately overcoming their anxiety.
Three Guiding Principles:
1. Anxiety is not dangerous and therefore does not need to be avoided. The more we can demonstrate this in how we react to our teens’ anxiety the better. Be calm. Although they may be panicky and their “fire alarm” is going off, you need to remember the principle that anxiety feels scary, but they are not in danger.
2. You don’t need to “do” anything. Be patient, calm, caring, and supportive, but don’t try to ‘fix’ their problem. Often our desire to address the causes of their anxiety causes unnecessary conflict and comes across as unsupportive.
3. Anxiety therapy can be incredibly helpful for teens. Although anxiety is not dangerous, it can be incredibly difficult for teens to manage effectively. Getting the right support, tools, and guidance can make all the difference in your teen’s life. The tips below work best when used in conjunction with your teen’s therapy.
How You (Parents) Can Help
1. Giving Structure
Anxiety in teenagers can lead to depression. If your teen is socially anxious, this can decrease their desire to go to school and cause them to avoid other social situations as well.
If this is the case, set a house rule that they can only miss school if they have a fever or are throwing up. Be firm and consistent with this rule. School gives teens the built-in structure they need. Being at home can make their anxiety and depression even worse. If they are resistant to going to school or you have lots of battles around this, you can discuss this with the school’s guidance counselor or an outside anxiety therapist.
2. Understanding Reassurance Seeking
Anxious teens often engage in behavior known as reassurance seeking. For example, they may be OK at school, but call you to make sure that you are alright. Or they may ask you to check their homework for them.
Answering these questions may decrease their anxiety in the short term, but in the long run, creates a recurring cycle. It also goes against the guiding principle that anxiety needs to be reduced.
You can train your teen to cope better with anxiety by showing them that the answers to their questions do not reduce their anxiety. In a calm and loving manner, explain that you will no longer be answering reassurance-seeking questions as you know it’s not helpful in the long run for their anxiety.
When they confront you with reassurance seeking questions, use responses such as “You already know the answer to that”, or ask them what they need to do to calm themselves. Ensure that other family members use this strategy as well so your teen doesn’t simply transfer reassurance-seeking behavior to another family member.
Be frank with your teen about their need to cope better with anxiety. It will be uncomfortable for them at first and the anxiety may increase, but eventually they will be able to handle anxiety-provoking situations independently without feeling the need for reassurance.
3. Limiting the Worry Talk
Anxious kids and teens are often excessively worried and feel the need to talk about it, even at very inconvenient times. If your child constantly discusses their worry, you can set a time and a place to talk about this with them.
This will enable you to be in the moment when your teen is telling you about their concerns. Negotiate the time and duration of these discussions with your teen – you may even find that they don’t need the full time that has been allocated. Ensure that your teen understands that you want to hear about the things they worry about at a time when you can focus on what they are saying.
It may take a while for your teen to learn to wait to discuss their stressors. If they bring up things outside of your set time, gently remind them that you will be all ears when it is their ‘worry talk’ time. This strategy will teach your teen that worries can wait, and that we can choose when to spend time and energy on worrying.
4. Giving Empathy
Time and time again, teens tell me that their parents give them advice on how to resolve a problem, when all the teen wants from their parents is to hear them out.
During ‘worry talk’ time, give your child empathy and resist the temptation to give them advice unless it is specifically asked for. If you’re not sure what they want from you, ask them a direct question: “What would you like from me right now? Would you like me to listen at this time and provide support or would you like advice or problem solving?”
Although listening without trying to intervene may be uncomfortable for you at first, over time you will see how this tends to work better for your teen and your relationship with them.
Ask open-ended questions. Clarify how they are feeling and what they are dealing with. Are they feeling scared, anxious, worried, angry? Use a couple of “I-feel” statements based on your personal reaction to what they are telling you. For example, “I feel sad that you are anxious about going to school, it must be so hard for you.”
You may find this type of conversation a bit awkward at first, but it often encourages your teen to talk to you when they have other issues in future.
5. Problem-Solving: Guiding Your Teen by Gently Challenging Their Perspective
Before you try this, check that your teenager wants to problem solve the issue, otherwise these questions can lead to your teen feeling frustrated! If you have conveyed your empathy, they are often open to this kind of help.
Help your teen by asking questions that may shift the way they perceive the situation, allowing them to view it in a more balanced and less anxious way. Some examples include:
* “How often have you experienced this outcome in the past?” Often, when we are honest with ourselves, we realize that negative outcomes aren’t as common as we think.
* “Are there other ways that you can look at this situation?” Answering this question may help your teen to consider other possibilities, not just the possible negative outcome that they expect.
* “What is the worst that can happen and can you cope with it?” There are times when considering this question will help your teen to gain perspective.
* “If a friend was going through this, what would you think about this situation?” This question forces your teenager to adopt a more objective view of their problem.
Coping successfully with anxiety is not an easy task, but being prepared and following the above tips will give you and your family the upper hand. Remember to provide a structured routine and reduce reassurance seeking, but be ready to listen to your teen’s concerns with empathy. Help your teenager adjust their perspective using open-ended questions– but first check that your intervention is welcome. By providing gentle guidance rather than ready-made solutions, not only will you help your teen to cope better with anxiety, but you will be able to maintain a strong, loving relationship in the process.
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