Although anxiety is a normal reaction to any stressful situation that makes us feel apprehensive or uneasy, it becomes harmful when it begins to interfere with everyday life. In both Canada and the United States, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. It is important to help your teenager cope with anxiety whether they struggle with a harmful level or not.
There are many reasons for teenagers to feel anxiety including negative self talk, insecurity, inconsistency, perfectionism and meaninglessness. Even “little” things like taking a test, meeting someone new, speaking in public or competing in sports can cause feelings of anxiety.
If your teenager is experiencing elevated levels of anxiety on a consistent basis, it is important to seek medical or psychotherapeutic treatment. You should seek help if your teenager: feels intense anxiety often, feels anxious when there is no real danger, avoids fun and important activities, or is unable to function in regular situations.
Most teenagers feel some anxiety. Here are 9 healthy ways to help your teenager learn how to prepare for and cope with anxiety.
1. Make Your Home a Safe Place
For your family to thrive, home should be a place where everyone feels safe to ‘let their hair down’ and still be accepted and loved. I’m not saying everybody does whatever they want without order! But an atmosphere of grace, love and gentleness is the goal.
Teenagers feel stress at school, work and extra-curricular activities all the time. Almost everywhere they go outside of the home, they feel pressure to fit in, show their best self, and be great. They need a place to relax and unwind without all that pressure.
Do not be discouraged if your home is far from the way you want it. Begin where you are and take steps toward making it a safe place for your teenager (for more help see Creating the Home Ambience You’ve Always Wanted).
Additionally, take this opportunity to work toward reducing your own anxiety in the home. I recently read a quote that helps put life in perspective:
“When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, when you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”
Much of what we worry about and act as if it is extremely important is not nearly as important as the people in front of us. Our teenagers are in front of us now. They need us now as much as ever (read Your Prime Opportunity for Powerful Impact for more on this).
Do all you can to make your home a place without worry, fear or stress for your teenager.
2. Recognize and Acknowledge Anxiety
The first step toward change is the recognition of where you are and where you want to be. If there’s a problem, like anxiety, it needs to be recognized and acknowledged in order to be overcome.
In other words, we need to be aware of anxiety and accept it:
“The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” – Nathaniel Branden.
Sometimes teenagers (and adults) are ashamed to admit anxiety. But recognizing and acknowledging it takes courage.
Sometimes, just recognizing and acknowledging anxiety in a specific situation is enough to help it go away. Other times, it is the first step toward facing the fear.
3. Face Your Fears
It’s okay to be afraid of things. However, fear allows the opportunity for courage, learning and maturing. This opportunity is attained by facing your fears.
Help your teenager understand this concept. Everyday examples are numerous. When my boys first learned to shower, it was scary to have the water coming down on their head and over their face. As they faced that fear and did it anyway (with a washcloth on their eyes at first), the fear began to go away. And showering became more of an enjoyable activity.
A great way to ease anxiety is to slowly and repeatedly face fear beginning with less fearful things and working up toward scarier things. Work with your teenager to write a list of the situations that cause them fear.
A list of fearful situations can be tackled by rating the fears and then breaking each fear down into smaller steps. These smaller steps can then become goals that can be worked on one at a time.
On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not much fear and 10 being super scary), rate the situations on the list. Beginning with the lowest rated fears, break them down into smaller steps. Then make a goal to accomplish the first step and talk about it before attempting the next.
4. Change Thought Patterns
Learning how our thoughts influence our feelings and behavior can alleviate a lot of anxiety. The things we think about have profound influence on our emotions and actions!
Our minds are always thinking about things. If those things are negative or loaded with worry about things that could happen, we will feel anxious.
It’s easy for teenagers to get into this poor thinking pattern. What may seem like a small event to us, can send an adolescent into a flood of distorted thinking. One person could say something mean to them and they begin to think that everyone sees them as a loser.
Fortunately, we can help our children change their thinking patterns. Positive thinking patterns reduce anxiety.
Explain the power of thinking patterns to your teenager. Help them understand how negative and positive thinking patterns affect how they feel.
Help your child recognize what causes anxiety and how to think through the situation rationally. When someone says something mean, instead of immediately thinking everyone thinks that way, think through the reasons. The person could be in a bad mood. Maybe the comment was the result of a misunderstanding.
When your teenager begins to notice negative thought patterns and then changes to more positive ways of thinking, they can begin to feel less anxiety.
5. Practice Positive Self-Talk
Another thought pattern that affects most people is negative self-talk. Normally, we wouldn’t talk to our friends or people we love the way we talk to ourselves.
The first thing that comes to mind when we stub our toe is, “I’m such a klutz!” When our teenager does poorly on a test, they often think, “I’m so stupid.” When someone says something rude or teases them, they tell themselves, “I’m a loser.”
The way we talk to ourselves affects how we think and feel. When we notice our negative self-talk and change it to what’s really happening, we can reduce anxiety and experience more joy.
Instead of telling ourselves, “I’m such a klutz!” or “I’m so stupid” or “I’m a loser,” we can reword those ideas more positively. “Oh, I hit my toe! That hurts!” can replace “I’m such a klutz!” “I didn’t do so well on that test” can replace “I’m so stupid.” And instead of “I’m a loser,” we can think “that person is being mean.”
6. Practice Muscle Relaxation
Our minds are amazing. They will not allow us to be relaxed and in a state of anxiety at the same time.
Learning how to relax various muscle groups progressively through the body will automatically reduce anxiety.
A great way to do this is to constrict the muscle as tight as possible and then release the tension as much as possible. Notice the difference between the tension and relaxation.
Using this technique for each muscle group, begin at the head and slowly move down the body.
7. Practice Deep Breathing
During anxious situations, it’s easy to forget to breath. The little breathing that does happen is short and shallow. Focusing on deep “belly” breathing is a great technique to calm down.
Release your breath and imagine the tension in your neck and shoulders leaving with the exhale.
Place your hand on your belly just above the belt line, and inhale through your nose by pushing your belly out. The idea is for your belly to draw the breath in (filling your lungs from the bottom up) while your hand helps you feel it happen.
Pause for a bit and then exhale by pulling your belly in.
Pause again before repeating the process.
8. Practice Meditation
There are many forms of meditation, but one that is helpful for anxiety is mindful breathing.
Meditation can be very frustrating because it’s hard to know whether you are doing it right. Don’t worry about whether you are doing it right or not, the point is to focus on your breathing and allow your thoughts to come and go in the background. If you notice your thoughts wandering, just focus back on your breathing. (You could focus on a word like “peace” and the feeling it has for you as you breathe.)
Find a comfortable place to sit with your feet flat on the ground, your back straight and your shoulders back and down.
With your hands on your belly slightly touching at the fingertips, breathe smoothly in through your nose and out through your mouth.
As you breathe slowly, in and out like this, allow your eyes to close and focus your attention on your breath. Notice the sensations and feelings in your body, and keep bringing your attention back to your breath.
9. Practice Healthy Habits
Encourage your teenager to eat healthy meals and snacks that have low sugar and fats and lots of vegetables and water. Replace as much unhealthy food as possible with healthier alternatives.
Teenagers need 9 to 10 hours of sleep at night for optimal brain development and all around healthy development. Many teenagers don’t realize or understand the importance of sleep (not much different from adults!). Help them schedule their time to include enough sleep.
Provide and encourage opportunities for physical activity. Walking, biking, sports, working out, anything that gets the body moving and the heart pumping is very helpful in reducing anxiety.