McNerney: Coping with Teen Stress and Anxiety

By Neil McNerney, Parenting with Purpose

In the past few years, I have seen a significant increase in the number of teens in my office complaining of anxiety. Kids these days are dealing with more stress and anxiety than any other generation, and it is causing them a great deal of difficulty.

Here are some of the symptoms of anxiety:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Avoidance behaviors (school refusal, being sick right before a game or performance)
  • Irritability
  • Physical symptoms, such as digestive issues, fear of vomiting, fatigue, and headaches
  • Outbursts
  • Panic attacks (heart racing, difficulty catching breath, sweating, dizziness, and nausea)

We have learned quite a bit about what is happening in the brain of an anxious person. During times of stress, our amygdala is overactive. The amygdala is a primitive part of our brain that processes threats. It’s the “flight/fight/freeze” part of our brain. Because this section is so active, our logical parts of our brain are not nearly active enough.

One of the most common coping mechanisms that teens use during anxious moments is avoidance. If I avoid thinking about the upcoming test, I won’t feel as much anxiety. If I avoid going to school, I don’t have to face the awkward lunch time, or the friend who stopped talking to me, or the mean teacher. It is much easier to avoid the stressful event than face it.

Avoidance works, in the short term. Avoidance behaviors decrease stress for many types of anxiety, including social anxiety, school avoidance, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But avoidance almost always backfires by causing more anxiety in the long run. The more we avoid the stressors in life, the stronger those stressors become. For instance, the more a student avoids school, the more makeup work is needed. This will, of course, produce more anxiety.

As a parent, dealing with an anxious teen can be very tricky. Our first response is to soothe. We tell them it’s no big deal, that they will get through it, et cetera. There is a reason these approaches don’t work: Our kids don’t feel understood. What they are feeling is real to them and when we try to tell them it’s no big deal, they will try to convince you that it is a big deal.

Instead, first try to communicate that you understand that they are very stressed about the situation. Communicate that you get it. “I can see why this is upsetting you so much right now.” When we let our kids know that we get it, they no longer feel alone, and it can then lead to helping with a solution.

Second, remember that when teens are anxious, their brain is not thinking logically. It is in a bit of a panic mode. Imagine getting ready to bungee jump off a bridge while at the same time trying to solve a math problem in your head. This is what it is like for a teen in the midst of feeling anxious.

Third, we know that the best approach to reducing anxiety is by facing it. For instance, we know that the best approach for a phobia is to expose the person to increasingly stressful examples of the fearful thought. The same concept works well for dealing with teen stresses. Encouraging our kids to face their fear is one of the more effective things a parent can do when a teen is facing anxiety.

Being Brave

In my work with children and teens experiencing anxiety, I use the term bravery quite a bit. Bravery, in my opinion, is not the same as being fearless. In order to be brave, one must also be experiencing anxiety or fear. Bravery is the act of facing fear. I will often try to have the teen recall times when they faced a fear in the past and will ask them to try to remember how they actually talked themselves into being brave.

For instance: “I know how worried you are about going to school today. You must feel miserable. I can’t imagine how lousy you feel right now and the thought of going to school must be very hard. It would take a tremendous amount of bravery to face this situation. However, I’ve seen you be brave in the past, and I’m wondering if you can also face this fear.” If you have instances that you can share when they were brave, now would be the time to share them.

Discussing bravery can only be helpful if you have successfully accomplished the first step: Make sure your teen knows that you understand how stressed they are. Validate their experience. If they don’t think you get it, then trying to talk about bravery will flop.

Dealing with anxiety, like other aspects of becoming an adult, is teachable. We, as parents, can teach them this skill, just like we taught them how to tie shoe laces and how to ride a bike.

Neil McNerney

[Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.]

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