Supporting an Anxious Teen, Part I

teenager sitting on ground with clasped hands

Being a parent of an anxious teenager can be really challenging. If your teen is willing to engage in a conversation with you here is a list of helpful phrases:

  • “How can I help?” This is the simplest and often most beneficial phrase for teens. While they may not know what you can do to be helpful, it starts the conversation about steps they can take together to start to manage their anxiety.
  • “Can you tell me a little more about what you are worried about?” It is important to try to find out what is going on with your teen rather than dismiss it as “teenage drama” or “no big deal”.
  • “I can see that you are really anxious about this, let’s breath together/let’s take a walk around the block together. I think it may help to calm your body and mind.” This allows you to provide guidance and add to the tool kit for use down the road. Teaching your teen how to manage their own anxiety well is essential and not something they will necessarily learn on their own. Many adults go through life with out- of- control anxiety because they were never taught the basic tools!
  • “I am here to help you.” Your teen will probably not want your help (or at least they will never admit that to you!), but the phrase allows your teen’s feelings to be validated and communicates your willingness to be part of her support team, when she is feeling ready for your help.
  •  “Let’s talk about what you are afraid of together.” The teen years are full of new, unknown and sometimes pretty scary things. Teens may have anxiety about going to school, fitting into a peer group or going through puberty. If your teen starts to express anxiety in the form of acting out, fear, panic attacks or school refusal it is important to validate your teen’s fears and talk about them together.
  • “Let’s brainstorm some ways to remain calm right now.” Similar to #3, the goal as a parent is to continue to give your teen tools and guidance, just as you did in their younger years. Now that they are older, your teen needs to have the skills to remain calm in order to make the best decision or avoid harm. Here is where parents can tune into their teen’s feelings and stress level and offer up some coping skills.

Other Essential Ways to Support Your Anxious Teen

 Learn to Breathe

 The power of the breath is well known among those who meditate, practice yoga and tai chi. Being in touch with the breath, allowing it to guide the nervous system into a state of calm, has been practiced for centuries in the East. Finally, Western medicine in starting to understand and embrace the healing power of the breath and for good reason. When we are anxious the breath shortens and quickens, causing our body’s nervous system to become aroused. The result is our brain goes into a stress response. We may freeze, zone out, panic, become aggressive and angry or run away.

The good news is, you can use your breath as a tool to calm the body back down. Taking deep, slow breaths helps to relax the major nerve that runs from the diaphragm directly to the brain. By asserting control over our breath and choosing to breathe deeply we are able to send a message of relaxation to the body and brain.

Encourage More Sleep

Most teenagers do not get enough sleep a night. The CDC recommend 8-10 hours of sleep per night for teens. (Yes, you read that correctly!) Teens who do not get enough sleep are at a higher risk of injuries, poor mental health, issues with attention and behavior as well as obesity and diabetes. Currently, the CDC estimates that roughly 72% of teens are not getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep per night.

Why is sleep so important at this age? Because this is a time of rapid brain development. It is very similar to the phase of brain development a toddler experience in early childhood.  While we couldn’t imagine encouraging our toddler to stay up late and only get a few hours of sleep a night, we regularly watch our teens go through this phase of development completely sleep deprived. If a toddler were to be cranky, upset and angry we might think it is because they need a nap or didn’t sleep well the night before. Why don’t we wonder the same thing about our teens who are not sleeping enough?

Anxiety can throw a major wrench into sleep. If your teen is practicing good bedtime hygiene, going to be at a reasonable hour (ideally no later than 10pm), but is still struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep anxiety is a likely culprit. If this is the case a bedtime ritual may be helpful. This might be a meditation app, a warm bath or a cup of tea. Having a predictable way to help wind down for the evening is an effective strategy for managing anxiety.

Stayed tuned for next week’s blog, Supporting an Anxious Teen, Part II, when we will share more tips for helping your teen effectively reduce and manage anxiety.

Is your teen struggling with anxiety? Please reach out to us. Our team of clinical experts are here to provide support and guidance.