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How to Support an Anxious Teen, Part I

Date Published: March 10, 2020
How to Support an Anxious Teen

It can be challenging to be a parent of an anxious teenager. You may struggle with what to say or how to best support your anxious teen. If your teen is willing to engage in a conversation, prepare to listen. Here is a list of helpful phrases you can use to show your support:

Ask a Simple Question

  • “How can I help?” This question is the simplest and often most beneficial phrase for teens. While they may not know how you can help, it starts the conversation about steps you can take together to help manage their anxiety.
  • “Can you tell me a little more about what worries you?” Try to find out what is going on with your teen rather than dismissing their feelings as “teenage drama” or “no big deal.”

Offer Support and Strategies

  • “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 approach allows you to provide guidance and strategies they can use now and in the future. Teaching your teen how to manage their own anxiety well is essential. They will not necessarily learn on these skills on their own. Many adults go through life with uncontrolled anxiety because they were never taught the basic tools!
  • “I am here to help you.” Your teen will likely not want your help (or at least they will not admit that to you!), but the phrase validates your teen’s feelings. These words communicate your willingness to be part of their support team when they are 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 through acting out, fear, panic attacks or school refusal, take time to validate your teen’s fears and talk about them together.
  • “Let’s brainstorm some ways to remain calm right now.” Similar to third phrase listed above, the goal is to give your teen tools and guidance, just as you did in their younger years. Now that they are older, your teen needs skills to remain calm in order to make informed decisions and avoid harm. Using this approach, parents can tune into their teen’s feelings, stress levels and offer some coping skills.

Other 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. Using the breathe to guide the nervous system into a state of calm has been practiced for centuries in the East. Finally, Western medicine has started to understand and embrace the healing power of the breath. When we are anxious, our breath shortens and quickens, arousing our body’s nervous system. As a result, a stress response is triggered in our brains. We may freeze, zone out, panic, become aggressive and angry, or run away.

The good news is that you can use your breath as a tool to calm the body 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 breathing deeply, we can send a message of relaxation to the body and brain.

Encourage More Sleep

Most teenagers do not get enough sleep at 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, attention and behavioral issues, 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? The teen years are a time of rapid brain development. It is very similar to the brain development phase a toddler experiences in early childhood. While we couldn’t imagine encouraging our toddler to stay up late and only sleep a few hours, we regularly watch our teens go through this phase of development sleep-deprived. If a toddler is cranky, upset and angry, we might 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 disrupt sleep. If your teen is practicing good bedtime hygiene by going to be at a reasonable hour (ideally no later than 10pm), but still struggles to fall asleep or stay asleep, anxiety may be a culprit. If this is the case, a bedtime ritual may be helpful. Examples include a meditation app, a warm bath or a cup of tea. Having a predictable way to wind down at night can help manage anxiety.

Help your teen cope. Sleep Advisor offers information on helping your kids cope with early school start times. They provide a wealth of knowledge on school start times across the country and the pros and cons of a later school schedule for kids, as well as the importance of sleep for teens’ mental health.

Looking for more ways to support your anxious teen? In Supporting an Anxious Teen, Part II, we share more tips to help your teen effectively manage and reduce anxiety.

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