Anxiety in adolescents

How to help your child's anxiety

Feelings of anxiety are a normal part of life and an even bigger part of growing up. As a teen, your child or grandchild is experiencing some of the most stressful transitions they’ll ever face, and while the stress and anxiety that comes with these transitions are completely normal, that doesn’t make this period any easier to endure.

Check out these tips for recognising the signs of anxiety, as well as helpful ways to help your child cope.

Recognising symptoms

Typically, anxiety is your body’s natural response to perceived danger, and can even be healthy for you. For example, for teens, anxiety is what motivates them to accomplish important tasks such as studying for a math final or completing a big research paper.

In fact, the right amount aids in the development of new skills, driving success and accomplishment. However, excessive anxiety can begin to take over their lives and prevent them from having a normal social experience, performing well in school, and building relationships with others. 

You may notice that they avoid daily activities in an attempt to find relief, or complain of physical symptoms such as shaking, sweating, nausea, headaches, and difficulty sleeping. While the first step should be to take them to a trained professional, there are several strategies you can teach them that can significantly reduce their feelings of anxiety.

1. Focus on the present

It’s always good for them to take a step back and focus on the here and now. Much of what makes them anxious involves future events - tests, dates, big moves, etc. They can alleviate some anxiety by practising mindfulness, which involves paying attention to the present moment and focusing on their mind and body. 

Often, anxiety causes us to get stuck in our minds, and before we know it, we are imagining the worst-case scenario and hung up on the unknown future. So, for example, your teen might be thinking constantly about the test coming up on Wednesday or the fact that their friend didn’t text them back. All this worry can take the fun out of activities they once enjoyed.

To refocus their thoughts, teach them how to do focused breathing or meditation. Ask them to simply take a slow, deep breath and use their three senses to name three things they can hear, see, and feel. Explain that sometimes their brain acts like a broken record stuck on repeat and just needs a little extra assistance to refocus and get unstuck.

2. Use words

Putting their fears into words and being specific about how they plan to overcome them is highly beneficial. Attempting to ignore what makes them anxious and hoping it will just go away will not work. They must tackle anxiety head on.

For example, if their anxiety is stemming from test anxiety, help them create a study plan and divide the study material into manageable chunks. Create flashcards to review with them. Help them make a list and develop specific strategies for overcoming problem events. Just make sure they’re not trying to do everything at once and focus on one anxiety at a time. 

For example, if their anxiety is stemming from test anxiety, help them create a study plan and divide the study material into manageable chunks. Create flashcards to review with them. Help them make a list and develop specific strategies for overcoming problem events. Just make sure they’re not trying to do everything at once and focus on one anxiety at a time. 

Get more specific by creating a M.A.P. (My Anxiety Plan) to help them deal with their anxieties and worries. Keep in mind that the goal is to give them the tools necessary to cope, not eliminate their anxiety. Trying to eliminate your adolescent’s anxiety creates a false reality, and removing all worry from your child/grandchild’s life is not an effective way to deal with anxiety. Anxiety is their body’s natural reaction, and they will continue to experience it to some degree throughout their life.

The purpose of the plan is to make their anxiety manageable, not non-existent. So, let them worry - but encourage them to contain it. Have them set aside 10-15 minutes for their brain go through its motions. Encourage them to use this time to get all their worries and fears out in the open. After the time is up, the talking stops and the planning begins.

3. Get connected

Anxiety can make your child feel as if they are different and disconnected from the world. Millions of teens experience anxiety, but when they are the ones suffering, they can feel alone. To manage anxiety, encourage them to spend quality time with family and friends whether it is an organised activity such as putt-putt or swimming, or simply hanging out in the living room or backyard.

Doing things with those we love gives us a sense of security and support, and when your teen is feeling anxious, security is the farthest from what they are feeling.

In addition to the positive support, spending time with others redirects their brain, helping them to practice the mindfulness technique that was mentioned earlier. The connectivity doesn’t have to stop at human interaction. Connecting with nature via a walk in the park or a picnic can help them feel peaceful and grounded, and the exercise sends a feel-good neurotransmitter to the brain to fight their anxious feelings. 

Pair exercise with proper nutrition and sleep. Incorporate fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains into their diet for long-term energy as opposed to the short lived energy spurt from sugary sweets. If their anxiety is affecting their sleep, create a bedtime routine. Encourage them to go to bed and get up at around the same time each night and morning to enhance the natural rhythm of their body’s internal circadian clock.

While most teens are glued to their phones, put an end to the screen time at least 30 minutes before bed, as the blue light has been shown to delay the body’s circadian rhythm, making it difficult to drift off to sleep. Swap out the phone for relaxing time before bed such as deep breathing, a warm bath, or journaling.

Conclusion

Having anxiety doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong with your child/grandchild - especially if they’re living through adolescence. Everyone deals with the related emotions to some extent, and coping mechanisms can help them through it. By giving them strategies to manage their anxiety, encouraging them to focus on the present with mindfulness, using specific words and goal, and finding ways to disconnect from the digital world, your teen can effectively navigate their anxiety. With a little help and support from you, it can and will get better.

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Published 31 July 2017. Written by Janice Miller.

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