How to Help Your Teen Cope with their Anxiety
Guest post from Dr. Kathleen Hart
What would happen if your teen could relate to their anxiety, rather than with intense fear and discomfort, but with openness and curiosity? Or even better, could you imagine your teen viewing anxiety as a helpful emotion? If you’re a parent with an anxious teen, I recommend helping your teen get comfortable with sitting with their feelings of anxiousness and discomfort rather than rescuing your teen from their anxiety.
How is anxiety helpful? Anxiety is a primal alarm system genetically built into all of us. It signals threats in our environment that can be physical, social or emotional. Whether it is cars passing near a crosswalk, a person violating your personal space, or someone being verbally aggressive or bullying you, our bodies respond to these signals with anxiety. We are programmed to take action when these signals go off. Our bodies signal anxiety in three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
With teens, it’s important to listen to and honor their internal cues of anxiety. Their anxiety can guide them to take action. For instance, just before a big sports game or a big test, your teen’s anxiety typically increases. First, it’s important for your child to recognize the physical sensations as anxiety increases and it’s helpful to label them. “Oh, it sounds like you’re feeling anxious right now”. Second, ask your son or daughter if they can be open to experiencing the physical state of anxiety. “Where do you feel it in your body? Do you feel it in your chest like a heavy weight, or difficulty breathing, a tightening in your throat, or tingling in your hands?” Try to help them be open to experiencing their anxiety and discomfort with a sense of neutrality. “Can you be with these anxious sensations that you’re feeling?”
When you help your teen lean into their anxiety, then they can explore what the source of their anxiety is. You can ask, “What’s your anxiety telling you?” For example, is it telling them that today’s volleyball game is different from yesterday’s practice? Is it telling them that the person they’re talking to is creepy and they need to end this conversation? Is it telling them that they need to stop procrastinating and do their homework?” When your teen can accept their anxiety and allow it to work for them and not against them, it can serve as a motor to get them to focus and complete tasks or take action to keep them physically and emotionally safe.
So here’s when anxiety gets complicated. Another thing about humans and anxiety is, unlike other animals, our evolved brains can create imaginary threats. Unfortunately, the primal parts of our brain can’t always distinguish the difference between real threats and imagined threats. Therefore, if your teen imagines that they are going to fail a test, or do poorly in a race, then their bodies will fire off the same physical warning and distress signals. In these situations, you want to help your teen explore their anxiety. “What’s your anxiety telling you right now? Is this a real threat or unreal threat? Are you overestimating the danger ahead of you by magnifying an imagined negative outcome to an event? Are you catastrophizing what might happen?”
I like to coach teens to activate their wise mind. This is the part of our minds that is reasonable and rational, and collects factual information. The wise mind realistically assesses the level of threat based on evidence, and is willing to accept threats with openness and positivity. For example, “Tomorrow’s exam will be challenging, however, if I plan ahead and study, then I most likely will be able to get the job done and, do a high quality job. I’ve been a student for ten years after all.” The wise mind views future thoughts with a positive outlook. It asks, what do I want to happen? The anxious mind, on the other hand, wants to focus on the future by asking, what’s going to go wrong?
Lastly, anxiety gets worse when your teen engages in safety behaviors, which are often avoidance behaviors. For example, if your teen has a fear of saying “no” to friends who ask them for favors, then when they don’t ever say no, their fear increases over time. Leaning into fears is the best way to manage them. By encouraging your teen to tell their friends, “No, I wish I could be of help, but I’m really swamped with work right now,” you’re helping them cope with their anxiety and influencing them to use their voice in the process. Parents can unintentionally foster safety behaviors in their teens by supporting them to avoid uncomfortable situations.
It can be hard to watch your son or daughter struggle with anxiety, but listening and asking questions can help them get to the root of what is causing it. While having anxiety is a common feeling, you can also have the discussion on whether or not it would be helpful to seek professional help should it start to interfere with their everyday life. Having a parent to lean on and process these emotions with is an important step in learning how to cope with their anxiety now, and potentially long-term.
Dr. Kathleen Hart is a licensed psychologist who works with children, teens and young adults who struggle with anxiety and eating disorders. Dr. Hart received her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston College and received her clinical training at The Children’s Hospital of Boston; The Cambridge Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Colorado. Dr Hart is currently serving as board president of the Eating Disorders of Maine. Several of her research findings have been published in Journal of Psychological Assessment, Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology and the Journal of Sex Roles. Visit her website to learn more.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.