Anxiety in Teenagers: Here’s What Parents Can Do to Help
Is your daughter battling anxiety and you don’t know what to do? Here are 9 ways parents can help lower anxiety in teenagers.
My Junior year of high school was one of the worst in my life. I went into over-drive to do everything I had to to get into my dream school. And I was a mess. I was barely getting any sleep. I was chugging Pepto Bismal on a daily basis. I even kicked a series of dents in my car when it failed to start one morning. It was so bad, that my mother actually sat me down and asked me if I was on drugs.
Was I on drugs?! No, I was not on drugs. Being on drugs would necessitate a social life, for one. (Which I did not have.) A drug habit, from what I understood, would also require a significant investment of time. (Which I also lacked.)
Was I on drugs? No, what I was on was all of the upcoming exams for my AP classes. What I was on was the 3 (yes, 3) application essays I had to write for Duke. What I was on was maybe 8 hours of sleep for the entire week.
I looked at my mother and saw a look of horror on her face. At that moment I realized that I had actually said all of that out loud. Maybe more like screamed it all out loud. *facepalm*
That’s what anxiety in teenagers is like. If you’ve never experienced it for yourself, it can be especially confusing and scary to watch your teen go through it. But even if you’re feeling completely helpless as to how to help your daughter, I assure you there is plenty you can do to help. Check out these 9 ideas here.
1. Explain what anxiety is
When we feel stressed or anxious, our brains let our bodies know that we’re in danger. That’s super helpful when you set your kitchen on fire whilst attempting a stir fry (I would know!), but a liiiiiittle less helpful during midterms.
Think about early humans. Let’s say two cavewomen hear a rustle in the bushes. One thinks it could be a tiger and takes off running. The other figures it’s probably just a rabbit and stays put. Which is more likely to live and create lots of cave babies?
So anxiety kept our ancestors safe, but it makes us pretty miserable. Sometimes just knowing anxiety's purpose is the first step toward loosening its grip.
2. Listen and show you understand
When our kids are struggling with something, it’s so tempting to fix it for them or reassure them that they’ll be fine. Because we have more life experience and we know better. But teenagers don’t hear it that way. When we immediately give advice or reassurances, they think we just don’t get it.
So hear your daughter out. Maybe tell her about that time you were so nervous that you threw up in front of your date so she understands that you actually do get it. She’ll appreciate it so much more.
3. Get anxiety help with a journal
Journaling is a great way for teens to sort out their thoughts and get their feelings out. There are a few different ways to journal (and even journals that mothers and daughters can share!). Bullet journals are a Type A girl’s dream and will keep her organized. Writing in a prompted journal or gratitude journal can be done in just a few minutes if that’s all she has. My favorite journaling app combines both.
4. Create an anxiety persona
This is a funny trick that really helps with anxiety in teenagers. Tell your daughter to think about her anxiety as a separate person (like in the movie Inside Out). What does that person sound like and look like? She can even give that person a name.
I thought that my anxiety sounded like an overbearing mother from a sitcom. (You need to get your paper done! See? You never should have gone to that game. Now you’ll never finish in time!) So I named her “Estelle” after George Costanza’s mother on Seinfeld.
Creating an anxiety persona works for a few reasons. One, it helps separate anxious thoughts from reality. Just because “Estelle” says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Second, once I distanced myself, I realized that “Estelle” was truly just trying to help. She just goes about it the wrong way. Knowing that makes it much easier to ignore her when she gets dramatic.
Need to talk to your teen about her anxiety? Check it!
5. Challenge her thoughts
Thought challenging is another cool technique that works well with anxiety in teenagers. The thoughts we have when we’re upset tend to be a bit dramatic. Recognizing and changing our dramatic thoughts to more realistic ones makes overwhelming feelings much more manageable.
Have your daughter write down some of her anxious thoughts. Then help her look them over and decide if they are 100% true all of the time. (Spoiler alert: They’re not.) Then help her change her thoughts so they actually are true. So something like “My coach is going to kill me if I can’t play by this weekend” would become “My coach will be disappointed, but she wants me to recover”. Much better, right?
Related: How to Beat the Bully in Your Head
6. Get anxiety help with mindfulness
Mindfulness is trendy with millennials right now. Luckily, this is one trend that absolutely deserves its popularity. Mindfulness simply means living in the present moment. People who are anxious are preoccupied about something bad that MIGHT happen in the future. But usually what is happening right now is perfectly fine. Things like yoga, relaxation exercises, and even coloring help anxious teens learn how to stay in the present.
7. Help her come up with solutions
After you’ve heard your daughter out and offered your own stories to show that you understand, help her figure out some solutions. Again, with decades of experience ahead of her, you probably have some great solutions in mind already. But try to hold back and help her come up with her own.
This works better for two reasons. One, we usually think ideas are better when we come up with them. And two, it will teach her how to problem solve and give her the confidence that she can handle problems when she is on her own. That’s a definite win.
Say your daughter is anxious about an upcoming phone interview with a coach from her dream school. Ask her what she things would make her feel more confident. Tell her about the phone interview you had for your first job and how practicing with your roommate and wearing a suit for the call (even though they couldn’t see you) weirdly made you feel more prepared.
Ask your daughter questions to guide her, but try to avoid giving her answers unless she asks. It can be hard to hold back, but imagine how proud you’ll both be when she gets there on her own.
8. Encourage her to gradually face her fears
Most of the things that cause anxiety in teenagers aren’t actually dangerous. In fact, a lot of them are even good for them - things like interviews, public speaking, and meeting new people. Let your daughter know that it’s normal to feel anxious about those situations, but also that it’s important to face those fears so she can achieve her goals.
If possible, help your daughter come up with a plan to work her way up to her final goal. For example, if she’s too anxious to drive on the interstate, maybe starting on a highway in an isolated area first would help build her confidence.
9. Get anxiety help with a written plan
When emotions are high, it’s difficult to think straight. So it’s a good idea to come up with a plan to deal with difficult situations ahead of time and to even put it down in writing. That way, when anxiety strikes, your daughter won’t have to think of a solution in the moment. She can just glance over her plan and carry it out.
An example of a plan to handle an upcoming presentation might be taking deep breaths, telling herself that she worked hard on her project and is excited to share it, and looking at her best friend in the class when she gets nervous. If you aren’t sure how to help her create a plan like this, a therapy workbook or counselor can teach her how.
It’s difficult to watch your daughter struggle with anxiety, especially if you’re at a loss for how to help her. Luckily, there are plenty of things that parents can do to lower anxiety in teenagers.
My advice is to address your daughter’s anxiety as soon as you become concerned about it. Don’t wait to see if it works itself out or assume that your daughter will grow out of it. Teens that don’t learn healthy ways of dealing with stress and anxiety usually find unhealthy ones. And the sooner she gets help, the easier it will be for her to get it under control.