Teenage anxiety is on the rise, with many teens struggling to find their path forward through a tumultuous and confusing future. Some teens worry about their prospects in a post-pandemic world, while others are struggling with the stress of balancing remote studies and adjusting to a new social environment while preparing for an unknown future in a world beset by climate catastrophes, dangerous disease variants, and a global refugee crisis.
For teens without an anxiety disorder, growing up right now is a scary prospect. But for teens struggling with anxiety issues, it can feel all too overwhelming.
Helping your teen come to terms with their condition and learn to cope with it is no small feat. Your teen may seem slow to adapt or learn given their worries and fears, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sharp. They often know what’s wrong, and the self-doubt and frustration paralyze them even further. Like an ouroboros, it’s a self-cannibalizing cycle.
True help from a friend or loved one cannot come through surface remarks, short tempers, or remaining uninvolved. Anxiety disorders are often long-term, which means your teen needs support in seeking the right resources to combat their thoughts and feelings, develop coping mechanisms, identify and avoid unnecessary stressors, and learn to live life to the fullest.
Knowing what to say is important, but it’s just as important to know what not to say. Here are a couple of things you might want to keep in mind when talking to your teen with anxiety.
Don’t Worry About It
Reassurance can be a powerful tool. But it doesn’t quite work for teens with anxiety in the same way it might for someone else.
A person with anxiety, regardless of what kind of diagnosis they’re facing, will constantly be bombarded with intrusive what if’s that supersede logic, and even trust in other people. They may love you, believe you, and put their faith in you, but there’s still going to be an incessant grain of doubt deep within them that constantly undermines any effort on your behalf to provide them with simple reassurances.
In fact, in certain situations, a simple reassurance can send someone with anxiety into a deeper panic, as they’re trained to know that that’s something people say when things have gone wrong.
Depending on the situation at hand, you may want to try saying a few different things. If it’s something your teen has already handled in the past – like a difficult exam, a speech in front of the class, or a party – remind them of how they handled it last time, and that they held their own, overcame their panic, or even had fun. By recalling and relating to an earlier experience, a teen may be able to soothe some of their worries.
We’ve all heard that one before. It’s a command, and one that dismisses your teen’s worries rather than addressing them. You might just want them to take things down a notch so you can breathe for a moment and address the situation logically.
But your teen isn’t in the mindset to do that right now. Telling them to calm down when they aren’t capable of doing so as a direct result of their condition only serves to frustrate them, on top of feeling panicked. In the same way, telling someone to just breathe is also unhelpful. Breathing exercises don’t work for everyone, and it’s just as commanding.
Instead, you can suggest to breathe together, or try out different grounding exercises to help someone find their way out of a moment of panic.
Just Get It Done
Frustration hits us all eventually, and there will be times when we’re asking a teen with anxiety to take on a task for us – only to run into an issue when they’re overwhelmed by said task. But we need it to get done. So, we tell them to go and “just do it”.
Tough love never works. It might feel like it does, sometimes, but it just leads to your teen hiding their symptoms, bottling themselves up, and feeling far more stressed out and alone than ever. They become defensive and hesitate to talk to you about their problems.
You’re Seen and Heard
We see messages like this everywhere on social media – calling attention to a mental health condition, and telling people that they’re heard, felt, seen, or understood. But these words are just words – even when they’re coming from a loved one.
If you’ve had anxiety issues in the past, these words can be powerful, provided they’re backed up with past experiences. It can and truly does help to hear from someone else with anxiety and get an insight into what it was like for them.
But if you didn’t, then relating to your teen in that way – or worse yet, providing an empty platitude – can be condescending at best, and insulting at worst.
Understanding Teen Anxiety Better
There are a few important tenets to keep in mind when talking to a teen with anxiety issues.
- Reassurances rarely work. Instead, try to empower your teen, or remind them of past experiences where they’ve overcome similar issues.
- Berating or being tough on a teen with anxiety makes things worse. Yes, exposure therapy can work in certain cases, but that’s a much more gradual and nuanced process than crudely “facing your fears”.
- If you can relate to your teen, then that can be a big help. But if you can’t, tell them you can anyway – or relating their stress to the stress you might be facing, such as going “yeah, well I’m having a hard time at work too” – will just alienate your teen.
Last but not least, consider professional help. It’s not easy coping with an anxiety disorder alone and developing the tools needed to combat these intrusive and frustrating thoughts and feelings.
Getting Real Help Together
Anxiety disorders can be treated through a combination of talk therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and medication.
Different therapeutic modalities help address anxiety in different ways – from identifying physical and creative coping mechanisms, to learning to communicate better with your loved ones, handling anxiety in the long-term, seeking vocational training and skills training to prepare for the workplace at one’s own pace, and much more.