What to know about a teen with anxiety
When anxiety occurs, it can impact essential parts of one’s functioning including: concentration, motivation, sleep, mood, ability to socialize, and problem-solving skills. Anxiety causes negative thinking which becomes difficult to control. Often this negative thinking is irrational and unhelpful. The negative thinking occupies the person’s mind so much that concentrating on other tasks, such as homework, becomes very difficult.
Negative and anxious thinking also takes up a lot of mental and physical energy which reduces motivation and presents another obstacle to completing tasks. Insomnia is a common outcome of anxiety, because at bedtime there is nothing left to distract the person from the anxious thoughts which, of course, further reduces energy and motivation.
When someone with anxiety is often engaged in negative thinking, their mood suffers too. It can be hard for teens to maintain a positive mindset when they are constantly bombarded with negative or pessimistic thinking.
Sometimes anxiety is centered around specific situations, like social situations. Many teens with anxiety worry about what others might be thinking about them and get nervous in certain social settings. Even when anxiety is more generalized, there can be specific worries about peers and socializing with others which can lead teens to isolate themselves.
It is important to keep in mind that a teen’s ability to solve problems is already limited due to their developmental stage. Teens’ brain development is at a point where considering long-term consequences is a challenge. Problem-solving becomes even harder when a teen is preoccupied with anxious thoughts. Also, teens may be desperate to prevent the imagined negative outcome from happening. For example, if the teen’s anxious thought is “I am so terrible at math, and I haven’t studied enough for tomorrow’s test,” then the teen’s behavior could be that they refuse to go to school or feign illness to avoid the test.
If anxiety causes so many challenges for teens, how are parents supposed to help?
Parents can help their teens manage anxiety and navigate their teen years effectively despite the added challenges. It’s important for parents to know, that often, accommodations will need to be made for anxious teens to be successful. At the same time, teens need to be held accountable for their actions and responsibilities. Sometimes parents give in too much to try and address the anxiety symptoms which can then make the teen’s ability to function worse. Teens need to learn that even though they have symptoms which make life challenging, they can meet those challenges and lead a successful life. If parents do too much for their anxious teen or are too permissive, teens get the message that life is going to treat them the same way; that they can rely on sympathy from others to get their needs met instead of taking responsibility for themselves. The following is a list of ways parents can help their teens manage anxiety while still holding them accountable for their responsibilities and the consequences of their behavior:
Empathy- Providing empathy to your teen becomes even more important when they are struggling with anxiety because of the added challenge they must overcome. When parents empathize with their teen’s experience, teens feel understood and are more open to taking directions from them. Empathy shows that you hear them and you understand; empathy does not mean you are agreeing with your teen and it does not take responsibility away from your teen.
Example: Your teen is anxious about interacting with others at a volunteering job he committed to because he worries that others are going to judge him negatively. Now your teen is refusing to go. You can provide empathy by saying: “I understand that you are worried that the others are not going to like you. I’m sorry this is difficult for you.”
Once empathy is given, parents can help teens problem-solve by asking how they think they should solve the problem and by giving their own suggestions too. Then, let the teens make their own choice about what they are going to do.
Modeling- When trying to manage anxiety, teens need practical skills to help reduce anxious thinking and feelings. Teens may learn these skills in individual or group therapy, but they can also learn skills from their parents. Parents can show their teens the positive things they do when feeling anxious.
Example: You are anxious about a presentation at work tomorrow. You decide to go for a walk and then take a bath to help reduce your anxiety. Let your know what you are doing and why. Then, when your teen is anxious about her presentation at school, you can provide empathy and then suggest that you go on a walk together, take some deep breaths, do some art, or engage in another relaxing activity.
Challenging anxious thoughts- Anxiety brings a lot of negative thinking which can be irrational or unlikely to happen. Parents can help their teens challenge these negative thoughts.
Example: If your teen thinks, “I’m not smart enough to get a good grade in math.” First, provide empathy “I’m sorry that you feel you’re not smart. It must make it hard to do your math assignments.” Then, help your teen challenge this thought by asking questions like “What is the worst possible outcome if this thought is true?,” “What is the best outcome if this thought is true?,” “What is the likely outcome?,” and “If the worst possible outcome comes true, will it still matter a week from now, a month from now, and a year from now?”
Once you help your teen identify a more balanced perspective, you can help your teen problem-solve. With the math example, the teen may be worried that he/she will fail the class and will not be able to go to his/her top college choice. Parents know that although this is a valid concern, this one grade is not likely to ruin their teen’s entire college future and that there are ways to address the issue. Parents can help their teens identify practical solutions like meeting with the teacher to discuss how to get their grade up or participating in tutoring.
Is this anxiety real or the result of privilege?
Anxiety typically develops in the teen years or early adulthood due to genetic predisposition and/or environmental triggers, such as a traumatic experience. It is unclear whether anxiety can also be caused by having a privileged life, though there is research showing that the culture of privileged or affluent families is impacting teens mental health. It is important to look at how parental and cultural expectations are playing a role in a teens’ anxiety.
In Silicon Valley, there is so much competition and pressure put on teens to excel academically and be accomplished in extracurricular activities so that they can get into a prestigious college. This pressure can create additional anxiety for teens – especially those who are not as academically inclined or who are average students.
Parents need to set realistic, instead of over-the-top, expectations for their teens. Often the concern is that if a teen does not stand out or is not better than others, then they will not have a successful future. The reality is that if teens are pushed too hard, they will struggle to be successful due to the emotional toll of performing at such a high level. It is important for parents to ask themselves what kind of pressure they may be putting on their teen and how this pressure may be impacting their teen now and in the future.
Anxiety can develop for a number of different reasons during adolescence. If your teen is showing signs of anxiety, or is having negative thoughts, start by providing empathy, love, and support. The most important part is allowing your teens to see you as a source of comfort and as a safe person that they can confide in. When needed, don’t hesitate to seek help from a therapist to further build your teen’s repertoire of positive coping skills. You can help your teen overcome these challenges and show them that they have the tools to succeed!
For further information about the impact of high achievement pressure, visit these links:
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