I don’t remember when it started, but I remember most of my childhood was marked by it. Staying up until the early morning hours waiting for my Dad to get back from his night shift at the hospital because the house felt strangely unsafe without him. Paralyzing fear when presented with a new experience or an unexpected change. Vomiting nightly for years of my life through childhood or before every big event through adolescence. The one year I mustered the courage to go to summer camp I threw up every morning and the whole cabin whispered theories about my condition. My 12-year-old self was completely humiliated to hear the rumors that my peers thought I was pregnant or bulimic and I never dared to go to that camp again. Unknown to me, I was actually suffering from anxiety. According to the National Institute of Health, I was not alone. Nearly 1 in 3 teens suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. The symptoms and severity can range from mildly obtrusive to completely debilitating, but none of them are easy.
If you find yourself mothering a teen who is struggling with anxiety, you are well aware of how heartbreaking and difficult it can be. As moms, we desperately want to help our kids when we see how much they are suffering, but often we are at a loss for what to do. Many times our attempts to help end up backfiring and instead seem to cause them to shut down or struggle even more and we are left feeling inadequate, guilty, and hopeless.
Sound familiar? The good news is that although anxiety is a diagnosis, it is not a death sentence. There is hope for your teen and your relationship with them. There are things you can do that will actually help them in learning to cope with their anxiety and thrive in the world. And both of you can make it to the other side stronger, both as individuals and as a family.
Seek to Understand Their Anxiety
Thankfully, we live in a generation that has mostly dropped the stigma about mental health and has provided so many great resources on anxiety. If you have an anxious teen, dig in and do some research on the topic. Realize that it can take many forms and present itself in different ways.
Your kid may seem unmotivated to participate in school social events or unwilling to try out for the team. Instead of chalking it up to being lazy or antisocial, look a little closer. Kids with anxiety will often choose to avoid things they really love and long to do because their anxiety tells them they are incapable or will make a fool of themself.
Does your kid have explosive angry outbursts? Try and curb your frustration and hurt and look at their heart. It probably isn’t that they are just disrespectful and self-absorbed people who must certainly loathe you. It may be that anxiety is lying under the surface building like a pressure cooker and something seemingly insignificant makes it blow up in your face.
Even check-in with your overachiever perfectionist who works themselves past exhaustion because they simply must excel at everything they do. As convenient as it is to have a naturally hard worker, and as proud as you are of their success, there could be an underlying reason they work so fiercely. Sometimes anxiety comes as the intense fear of messing up or letting people down.
Be gentle with them
Perhaps you grew up with a “Face your fears!” mentality, which may make it natural for that to be your default response to your children’s nerves. Although there is a time and place for toughening up, guiding your anxious teen is not one of them. If you push or pressure them into something they are not ready for, you are only adding to their anxiety and slamming the door shut to being a safe place for your kid. People with anxiety will step out of their security net when they are ready, but they will never have that courage if we don’t embolden them to do it on their own instead of shoving them out ourselves. Remember, to encourage not force. You want to help your child find the ability within themself to rise above fear by empowering them to do so in their own time.
Another important piece of being gentle with them is to never belittle or dismiss their fears. They may express concern over something that sounds completely irrational and inconsequential to you, but remember that to them it is very very real. If you mock their fears or dismiss them with a “That’ll never happen!” or “It’s really not a big deal.” then you are only showing you don’t take them seriously, making them doubt themselves even more and therefore heaping more anxiety on them. When your teen opens up about what is bothering them, fight the urge to comment at all. Listen to them. Allow them to lay it all out there and encourage them to keep talking about it. Just talking through what they are feeling with someone who takes them seriously and listens well will take a tremendous load off their back. Tell them you can see how hard and overwhelming this is for them and ask what you can do to help them through.
Find coping techniques
Encourage your teen to find an outlet; something that allows them to express themselves while calming their anxious bodies and minds. It could be creating something through writing, drawing, playing an instrument, or cooking. For some kids, just stepping away and reading a book, being outdoors, playing sports, or playing a game can help refocus them (games that entail sorting can have a soothing effect on the organizing and analytical type of mind. Something like Mah Jong, Solitaire, Sudoku, or word searches may be old school, but it gives them a venue to physically bring order to the chaos which gives them a chance to reset and feel more in control. I don’t recommend video games because the key here is dealing with the anxiety, not just distracting from it.) You can bring up the idea of talking to a professional counselor, but don’t be surprised if your teen is resistant to the idea. There are some amazing resources for this and now there are even online counselors for teens who feel more comfortable communicating through text or chat. Whatever it looks like for your kid, work with them on finding something that can help ease the intensity when anxiety tries to take over,
Have patience, with your teen and yourself
Anxiety is a real illness and cannot be wished or hidden away. It will take time to learn coping techniques and to establish to your child that you are here to support and encourage them. There will be times you feel like you are failing and that there is no hope of improvement. You will worry every time your kid ventures into something new or a life change pops up that you know will be a trigger for them. Some days you will mess up, say the wrong thing, or feel like you simply can’t take another day carrying this weight. Be patient with yourself on the days you feel you didn’t get it quite right. Know you are not the only one on this path and certainly not the only one who fears you are doing it wrong. It’s okay if sometimes you don’t understand your kid’s struggle or know how to help them. The most important thing is that you love them through it all. When you love them unconditionally you are providing them the most important tool to successfully battle anxiety: the knowledge that they are capable, they are valuable, they are not alone, and they are so very deeply loved.