With all the uncertainties of the present moment, it is not surprising that many teens are experiencing anxiety. The combination of the unknown, fear and lack of control induces an anxious response, which takes a toll on behavior and mental health. Once the nervous system is activated and the stress hormones are flowing, the prefrontal cortex of the brain actually goes offline – and with it, the ability to focus, make wise decisions or take healthy risks. In other words, our teens can get stuck.
Stress tolerance is a muscle we all need to build. How can parents help when anxiety is running high? To find out, I spoke with two experts. Robbye Fox, a college coach and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland points out that our teens are not alone. “Everyone is coming in presenting with anxiety,” she says. Ned Johnson, president of PrepMatters and co-author of “The Self-Driven Child and What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home,” also reports an increase in stressed-out students (and their parents).
A little bit of anxiety is good for teens. That’s what gives them the adrenaline to prepare for a big exam or go beyond their comfort zone to try something new. The problem is when teens get stuck in a stress response and become hypervigilant, scanning the environment for threats and avoiding things that need to be done. As Fox puts it, “The trick is how do you relax out of that loop.”
With advice from my two experts, I compiled a list of seven Anxiety Busters to help our kids (and ourselves) de-stress.
Start with a credit list.
Encourage your teen to chart their successes, writing down what they are doing effectively and feel good about. Try asking, “What are you enjoying in your life right now?” or “What are three things you feel you’re good at?” or “How are you handling what you have on your plate right now?” Giving ourselves credit makes space for self-compassion, a natural de-stressor.
Take care of the basics.
We reduce emotional vulnerability when we make sure our most basic needs are being met: sleeping, eating, exercising and avoiding an excess of things like caffeine and sugar. Teens are notoriously sleep-deprived. Help them find a healthy sleep routine by encouraging them to wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day (as much as possible), keep blue lights out of the bedroom (we’re talking to you! phones, tablets, and laptops!), only use their bed for sleeping (no studying). Replace lectures with questions and some good modeling of your own sleep hygiene.
Accept some discomfort.
Anxiety makes us want to avoid feeling uncomfortable at all costs, and yet discomfort is a growth opportunity, not something to shy away from. That goes for parents, too. It is uncomfortable to watch our children struggle, but we need to let them gain experience in solving their own problems. What we really want is for our kids to learn to handle things that are a little difficult (with our support, not our control) so that they will develop the ability to handle harder things. Our job is not to prepare the path for the child, but to prepare the child for the path. What helps alleviate stress is to experience a stressful event and then recover. Put that on repeat for a lifetime and you wire the brain for resilience.
Blow off steam.
“If the inflows of stress aren’t balanced by at least the same amount of outflows of stress, bad things are going to happen,” Johnson says. “If you don’t have healthy ways to deal with or eliminate stress, you will use unhealthy ways.” The dominant manifestation of stress is avoidance. Gently talk to your teen about how some of the distractions they may turn to when avoiding anxiety, such as screens and social media, actually increase anxiety. In place of these distractions, encourage activities that actually reduce anxiety, such as exercise, yoga, meditation and sleep.
Get out of the house.
Research shows that anxiety lowers when we are outdoors. And while we’ve told our kids to “Go outside!” from the time they were young, we know that approach doesn’t work. Instead, try modeling your own stress management. “Hey hon, I’ve had a really stressful day at work, would you be willing to walk with me outside for 20 minutes before we start dinner and homework?” You never know when they might just say yes.
Surrender some control.
A healthy sense of control is vital for self-motivation and has far greater long-term benefits than coercing behavior through threats and bribes. “If you want to raise kids who are under-motivated and highly anxious, just control everything,” Johnson says. “Low sense of control is really the most stressful thing that human beings can experience. Parents have a tendency to exert more control over their homework, phones, relationships – everything – as a way to reduce our own stress. But our comfort comes at the expense of our teens’ mental health.” Allowing teens to experience the consequences of their actions puts them in the driver’s seat and teaches them the important lesson that they will get out of life what they put into it. We want them to experience, learn and feel that they are responsible for their choices.
Practice empathy and brush up on your listening skills.
Our homes should be emotional safe spaces where we can repair, restore and support each other. If we tell our teens to do things in a tense and stressful way, they will keep avoiding the task to dodge feeling stressed out. Instead, try reflective listening and open-ended questions. “I’ve been waking up at odd hours of the night lately. How’s your sleep?” “This is a tough time. What is hard for you in your life right now?” Avoid oversharing or handing your stress over to your teen. Offer encouragement through big doses of empathy (which doesn’t mean agreeing, fixing or giving in) and validation (which doesn’t mean talking kids out of strong negative emotions). Logical argument doesn’t calm negative emotions – it can feel like criticism and lead to defensiveness and further upset. The feeling of being understood, listened to and validated lowers the emotional temperature, kicks the prefrontal cortex back into gear and makes it far more likely that teens will come up with solutions for themselves.
We live in uncertain and anxious times. As parents we truly do need to put our own oxygen masks on first by tending to our own stress management. When we are a “non-anxious presence,” we can practice these seven strategies to help guide our teen through their anxiety. Remember there are a lot of parenting resources out there to support you. You are most definitely not alone.
Resources for stress management
“Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience” by Dr. Michael J. Bradley
“A Year of Positive Thinking for Teens: Daily Motivation to Beat Stress, Inspire Happiness, and Achieve Your Goals” by Katie Hurley LCSW
“Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting,” podcast by Dr. Lisa Damour
Parent Encouragement Program (PEP): pepparent.org
Family Leadership Center: familyleadershipcenter.org
This appeared originally in Washington Parent Magazine.