Helping Your Anxious Teen: A Guide for Parents

Teenagers are often ill-equipped to cope with anxiety. Let us look at some ways in which parents can support their anxious teen

Mother supporting her anxious teen

Butterflies in the stomach, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, irritability — all of us know what it feels like to be anxious. Rare is the person who has never experienced anxiety. Yet, we all find a way to deal with our feelings of doom and gloom and get on with the task that is evoking these feelings.

Clinical anxiety, however, is a different story altogether. When the sense of doom, the worries, the apprehensions, continue unabated, when the hyper-arousal that comes in the form of palpitations, trembling, and physical restlessness becomes a constant state of our body, and when our anxious thoughts, fearsome feelings, and uncomfortable bodily sensations overwhelm us to a point where we can’t function optimally, that is when we know that this anxiety is something that needs to be addressed.

Unfortunately, for many of our teenagers and pre-teen children, this ability to discern normal anxious thoughts from anxiety disorders is underdeveloped. As a result, they may find it extremely difficult to talk about their anxiety. They may often suffer in silence, mask their anxiety under behaviors such as anger, rebellion or disinterest, or judge themselves for experiencing these feelings.

As parents, it is always distressing and difficult when a child is battling a difficult situation. But when it is a mental health issue such as anxiety that the child is struggling with, this distress is magnified manifold. Let us look at some ways in which you can be there for your anxious teen.

How to help your anxious teen

Acknowledge your child’s anxiety

Children’s fears and worries are very real to them. Brushing off their anxiety, minimizing it, or invalidating it only makes them feel lonelier and more isolated. Instead, hear them out. Acknowledge that you understand their apprehensions. Use simple paraphrasing and rephrasing methods to let them know that you hear them, and you see what they are going through:

“I can see that you are really anxious about this.”

“You are worried that you won’t pass the exams.”

“You are feeling really stressed about this situation.”

These are a few simple ways in which you can restate what they are feeling. No, you are not encouraging their fears; you are simply validating their experience. And that goes a long way in making them feel understood.

Empathize with your anxious teen

The next step is to let your teen know that you empathize with their worries and what these worries do to them. Try to see the situation the way they see it, and understand their fears. Only then will they be really receptive to seeing things the way you see them! Communicating empathetic understanding opens them up to the possibility that they are not alone in how they are feeling, but are supported by significant others (mainly you), in their lives.

Gently move them in the present

Anxieties usually stem from apprehensions about the future or ruminations about the past. Gently refocusing your teen to the here and now can help them keep their apprehensions and ruminations in check. This needs to be done tactfully and gently. For instance, to a if a teen is anxious about going blank in the exam, gently move their attention to what they can do today to prevent that from happening. This breaks the cycle of ruminative thoughts and also helps them focus on solutions rather than their own emotions.

Teach your anxious teen to be mindful toward the physical manifestations of anxiety

The butterflies in the stomach and the trembling of the body, the racing heart and the sweating palms — these are the physical manifestations of the anxious thoughts, that feel quite uncomfortable and, at time, unbearable. Encouraging your teen to simply become aware of her body’s response to anxiety helps ground them and feel calmer.

Share your experiences with anxiety

One of the best ways to get your anxious teen to listen to you is to talk about your own experience — situations where you may have experienced anxiety. Talking about your own youth and your stresses of the time is the best. But if for some reason you’d rather not talk about anxieties of your younger self, talking about things that make you anxious today will also benefit. Such sharing helps build perspective, and makes your teen understand that, at times, our mind can play games by creating scenarios that are highly unlikely to unfold in reality.

Radiate a sense of calm

One of the worst possible reactions you can give to your teen’s anxiety is to become anxious yourself. On the other hand, if you stay calm in the face of their overwhelming emotion, it immediately provides them with a sense of support and solace. Remember, calm begets calm, so your own sense of calm and equanimity will make itself felt—your teen, who is tuned in to your emotions and energies, will immediately pick on it.

Learn the language in which your teen expresses anxiety

Teens and children may not always come up to you and say, “I am anxious”. Often, anxiety comes in the form of restlessness, irritability, sullenness, and other behavioral manifestations; or shows up as headaches, stomach aches, nausea and vomiting, GE issues and other physiological expressions. As a parent, you know your child best, you know how your child usually tends to react to stressors. Always be alert enough to read the signs through which your child may express their anxiety. Once you notice their typical manifestation, reflect it to them.

“I notice you are feeling quite restless today. Is there something on your mind that you would like to talk about?”

“You have been feeling nauseous for several days. Are you feeling worried about something?”

These simple reflections will allow your teen to notice their own underlying anxiety, and also open the pathway for you both to have a conversation around it.

Normalize occasional anxiety

Helping your teenager see that occasional bouts of anxiety are normal, and experienced by everyone, makes them feel less alone, and allows them to cope with it better. Instead of pooh-poohing their worries, tell them that their worries are understandable; doing so provides them the spaciousness into which the anxiety can eventually dissipate.

Help them identify pathological anxiety

Occasional anxiety is not a cause for alarm but it is important that you as a parent understand that, beyond a point, anxiety can be pathological, and can overwhelm your teenager. It is important that you educate yourself about clinical anxiety to gauge whether what your teenager is experiencing is normal or clinical anxiety, and seek help if needed.

Offer them therapeutic support

You may be surprised by how readily children agree to go into therapy; in fact, several may even come up to you and ask you to seek an appointment with a psychologist. Today’s youth is very aware of mental health challenges, and sees no problem in seeking professional help when they are unable to cope with their issues. Thus, if you feel your anxious teen will benefit from therapy, please go ahead and offer this to them. if your child comes up to you and says they need to see a therapist, please don’t balk at the idea or panic. Go right ahead and set up that first appointment. It will go a long way in building your teen’s trust in you, and pave the way for a more open and robust relationship between the two of you.

The takeaway

Anxiety is a faceless, nameless demon, and watching your child battle this invisible, yet real, demon, can be heartbreaking. If your teen is showing signs of anxiety, offer your active and unconditional support to them. Make sure they feel understood and be careful not to say or do anything that makes them regard their anxiety as invalid. Stay calm and learn to communicate in the language your teen uses and understands. And lastly, offer them professional counseling therapy, if needed.

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Samindara Hardikar-Sawant
Samindara Hardikar-Sawant is a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist. She is the director of Disha Counseling Center in Mumbai and is the author of Taming the Tornado: A Parent Manual to Manage the ADHD Child.


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