Having a teenager is hard. Having a teenager who is struggling with anxiety can feel impossible. Irritability, mood swings, and skipping school can all be normal teen behaviors. But they can also be signs that something more serious is going on. The New York Times Magazine recently published an article on the apparent increase in anxiety in teens. Although the research hasn’t pointed to one cause, increased access to technology seems to be one likely culprit. We live in a world where we have constant access to everything. News alerts on our phones remind us of every danger out there. Constant updates from family and friends make us feel like we either aren’t doing enough or we’re missing out. Access to emails from work or school after hours make it impossible to shut down. This is particularly problematic for teens whose brains are still developing. The constant stimulation makes it harder for the amygdala (which is connected to our fight or flight response) to learn what’s an actual threat and what’s not.
Here are some tips to help your teen manage their anxiety.
1. Help them name it.
Sometimes anxiety looks like irritability or a stomach ache. They might not know they are experiencing anxiety. During my freshman year of college, I developed temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ). Basically, my jaw stopped working because I was really stressed out and anxious. If you had asked me if I was anxious leading up to that diagnosis, I would have said no. And even afterwards, it took a while for me to realize that I was clenching my jaw when I was feeling stressed and anxious. Now I know when my jaw starts get tight, I need to check in with myself and name what’s going on so I can address it.
2. Validate their feelings.
We all have fears and anxiety but our society often tells us to “tough it out” which isn’t helpful. Let your teen know it’s okay to be anxious. Hiding our anxiety often leads to more anxiety about how good of a job we feel like we are doing with hiding our initial anxiety. That’s exhausting. Just saying it’s okay to be anxious can provide a lot of relief.
3. Practice mindfulness.
Have your teen place one hand on their stomach and the other on their heart while breathing in and out slowly. Have them take at least 10 breaths. Take turns describing things around you in excessive detail to help your teen stay in the moment and to give their brain something else to focus on. This might look like describing the feel of the chair you are sitting on or describing a piece of artwork.
4. Turn off phones!
Social media can be a huge source of anxiety. Have phone free family time daily: read books, cook together, create something, watch a movie or tv show together (no phones allowed!).
5. Get professional help.
Anxiety is real and can be debilitating. Talk to your PCP, Psychiatrist, or Therapist for treatment suggestions that match your family’s needs.