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Learn How to Help an Anxious Teen

Anxious child blog Katrina 14Jul24 (1)

Learn How to Help an Anxious Teen

Three things to try when faced with an emotional or anxious teen. 

A time of profound change 

Adolescence is a time of profound physical, social, and emotional change. Teens are grappling with a myriad of challenges, including peer pressure, academic stress, physical changes, and their search for identity. They are, in effect, experiencing an existential crisis.  

Therefore, any situation where there is unresolved uncertainty causes your teen to feel stress and anxiety. This happens in a broad range of scenarios. 

Helpful things to understand. 

Here are some helpful things to understand that may smooth out some of the emotional roller-coaster ride that comes with the teenage years.  

Your nervous system versus theirs 

Our brains learn and develop in relation to the experiences we have in the world. The older we are, the more experiences we have had and, therefore, the more opportunities we have had to learn from those experiences.  

In the nervous system, this translates to billions of neural connections and pathways that occur as we mature. Conversely, your teens have an immature brain and an immature nervous system. This means they haven’t had as many experiences as you and, therefore, don’t have as many neural connections or pathways. Their brains are effectively ‘in development’.  

The nervous system perceives any new experience as a stressor—that is, something that makes you feel stressed and triggers your stress response. When this happens, your nervous system is saying, “Am I safe?”  When your nervous system is unsure if you are safe or not, it makes you feel anxious. When we resolve stress by working through the problem to find a solution, the stress response and anxious feelings resolve.  

Teens have lots of new experiences. This makes them feel anxious.  

Your teen is not you 

Your teen is a unique individual who has their own unique experience of the world in their own unique environment. These factors are important in shaping their personality, temperament, interests, and perspectives. They may choose interests, values, beliefs, and other characteristics that are different from yours. This is quite normal. 

What can you do? 

When faced with an anxious or emotional teen, here are three things you can do.  

1.  Try not to solve the problem 

Try not to give them your solution to their problem. 

When their emotions are heightened because of something that happened during the day, it is tempting to try to solve their problem in some way so they calm down. After all, it can feel stressful for you too!  

However, your answer to their problem invariably comes from your different experience of the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can get in the way as your teen grows into a person who is different from you. When you try to resolve their problem, it can feel uncomfortable, like wearing ill-fitting shoes.  

Think of a time when you felt stressed about something, and someone close to you told you what you should do. For example, imagine you have lost your job, crashed the car, or a pet has died.  

Here are some possible responses from other people. Which do you prefer? 

  • “You’ll be right. No use making a big deal about it . . .”

  • “You think you’ve had a bad day. . .”

  • “Oh, that reminds me of the time . . .”

  • “That is awful. I would be devastated if that had happened to me.”

  • “It sounds like you have had a really tough day. Is there anything I can do?” 

In the first four responses, the person offers a solution to your situation. They are saying, “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about that” or “In my experience, what just happened to you is nothing compared to what has happened to me.”  

They are reaching into their own experience and seeing it from their personal place of understanding. These responses, while well-meaning, do not seek to understand your experience, which is likely to be different. 

The last response is more empathetic. This person does not assume prior knowledge about you or your experience. This person does not try to give you a solution to your problem. 

Sometimes it is more helpful to have someone acknowledge and validate your feelings, stay with you, or offer help and support so that you can then process what is going on and find the best solution for you. Your teens are the same.  

Much teenage anxiety is precipitated by the rapid changes in their environment and their body. Unfortunately, you cannot shield them from these, however, you can provide a safe and stable environment at home. This is extremely important. 

When they are upset, crying, or yelling, they are fearful and anxious.  

Having a parent who can stay calm when they are upset is incredibly powerful. It provides them with “an island of calm in the storm”. This means that no matter what is happening in the world outside, they will always have a home and parents that make them feel safe and calm.  

2.  Try to provide a safe place 

Remember that their worry comes from a place of immaturity and uncertainty. They are still learning who they are and how to operate in the world. What they want to see in your face, and hear in your words, is that no matter what is going on, they are absolutely 100% fine in your eyes.  

What you want them to translate from your words and expressions is: “I love you”, “I am here for you”, and “You are safe with me”.  

The more explicit you can be the less confusion there will be in translation. 

3.  Take small steps 

Your teen needs help to reduce their feelings of stress and anxiety. This is easier said than done especially if your own emotions are moving in synchrony with those of your teen.  

However, small steps and small adjustments to the way you interact with your teen can make a significant difference in how they feel about themselves as they navigate these years. In addition, there will be reciprocal benefits seen and felt in your relationship with them.  

Some final words 

Finally, I would like to leave you with some words from a poem called Day 1 by Barbara J. Burrow. I think they sum things up quite well. 

Today is day 1, 

From today, I will accept you as you are, 

I will not expect you to be me 

I will love you because you are you. 

Katrina Gow  

Katrina is a dedicated parent and qualified counsellor and psychotherapist with a passion for supporting families through challenging times. Katrina combines her diverse background in nursing, occupational health, and Shiatsu massage to offer a unique and holistic approach to her work. She is a committed practitioner of Iyengar yoga, and deeply comprehends the profound connection between mind and body, recognizing the significance of balance in sustaining overall health.

Katrina is fascinated with the human condition and has a particular interest in exploring the complex subject of stress and its interwoven effects on our feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Katrina has niche experience in the area of school avoidance and she now seeks to help parents dealing with the enormous stress that invariably accompanies having a child unable to attend school.

 Katrina works at the Melbourne Children’s Clinic in Surrey Hills.

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