Responding to teen anxiety

It was great to see so many parents come along to the session we held on 16 June at the College to hear about ways to respond to teen anxiety. The high attendance was certainly evidence of what a challenge this can be. It was heartening to hear from some who attended that there was something that they will now do a little differently to support their child reduce their anxiety.

Here is a recap for those who were unable to make it or as a reminder for those who came along and who may wish to share the information with other caregivers within their family.

What is an anxiety disorder and how can we recognise anxiety in our own child?

An anxiety disorder is when the intensity and/or frequency of our fear and worries is out of proportion to the situation and stop someone from being able to do the things that would be a reasonable expectation and causes significant distress.

Anxiety presents in our body (e.g. sleeplessness, stomach pains, headaches, heart palpitations, breathlessness etc), our thoughts (e.g. excessive worry, rumination) and in our behaviour (avoidance, withdrawal, aggression). It is helpful for parents/carers to support their child to recognise the ways in which they feel anxious.

It is also important to tune into your own feelings about your child’s anxiety. Feelings of confusion, overwhelm, guilt, embarrassment, frustration, helplessness, worry and your own anxiety can arise. It is helpful to reflect on the impact these feelings have on your own responses. How we respond make a real difference to how our teen responds.

A common conflict between parent/carer and teenagers is whether their behaviour is anxiety or perhaps laziness, selfishness or misbehaviour. It is worthwhile to consider the thoughts and feelings behind the behaviour. Recognsing and accepting anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviour and believing that recognised strategies do actually work can be the greatest challenge in change.

How can parents/carers help ?

Young people are often convinced that an anxiety disorder is a permanent state and that strategies won’t work for them. Anxiety is a very treatable mental health condition and there are a lot of practical strategies that parents can encourage. The key is that the strategies need to be used consistently.

  • Start with calming techniques. When your child is in distress the first step is to help them to regulate so they can think more clearly and communicate with you. Perhaps then can go have a shower, try some box breathing, or go for a walk.
  • Small achievable steps lead to feelings of success and are a great motivator. It will be an impossible battle to force your child to face a fear that completely overwhelms them, but it is critical to encourage small steps to face their anxiety. E.g. a teenager anxious about speaking to a teacher and who is seeking to avoid school rather than ask for help, might first write them an email while you sit beside them.
  • Problem solving increases confidence in their own resilience. Encourage your child to consider the potential options. A helpful question might be ‘What would your friend do in this situation’ or ‘Have you been in this situation before?’
  • Reality checking. It is helpful to identify when your child has anxious thinking; and encourage their awareness of this. What are the facts, what is the most likely outcome? If the worst thing you fear happened, how would you cope ?
  • Rewards are a motivator. Facing fears is stressful and scary. It is difficult to develop intrinsic motivation and external rewards can increase brave behaviour. Similarly, it is important to not reward avoidance.
  • Model your own brave behaviour. Talk about your own feelings of fear and worry and what you have overcome. Teens have less life experience to draw on about the likelihood of worries.
Parenting traps

It is often intuitive to want to make life easier for our children, however tolerating discomfort and overcoming challenges are vital coping skills that decrease anxiety. Avoidance is often the go-to coping strategy because it provides temporary relief, however it has the opposite long term effect of actually increasing anxiety. The temporary relief tricks the brain into thinking that the fear or worry was real and the feelings of relief convinces us avoidance was the best decision. Decreasing anxiety must involve experiencing what worries us and in turn experiencing the ability to cope.

Positive wellbeing, such as good eating habits, sleep hygiene, connection, physical activity and purpose are part of the puzzle to increase our children’s resilience.

Common parenting traps include

  • offering constant reassurance (does your child often call you during the school day to solve a problem?),
  • rescuing (ever had your child ring you to pick them up from school or a social situation because they have had a fight with a friend?)
  • allowing avoidance (do you provide an excuse to get out of an activity when your child feels anxious about it).

These are parenting traps because we do fall into them because they can decrease conflict in a family and can lead to our children feeling grateful towards us, but the anxiety will continue. Supporting our children to believe that they can cope and that if they fail, they will still be okay is an essential life skill that we support them to develop.

Where to for help ?

Structured psychological support and at times medication are an important part of treatment, but there are many ways that parents/carers can make a real difference by validating their experience of anxiety, empathizing with their genuine struggle, expressing confidence in their ability to cope and encouraging them to face their fears and worries.

Not always easy, but certainly worth it.

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