Ask a Therapist: On Anxious Teens
Q: My teenage daughter is struggling with anxiety and I don’t know how to help her. What can I do?
A: It is tough to watch someone you love struggle with mental health concerns and normal as a parent to want to help in some way. Here are some thoughts to consider as you seek to understand and offer support:
Take their distress seriously. Kim John Payne in his book, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, explores the idea of “soul fever”. Soul fever refers to a time when a teen’s mental or emotional reactions are indicative of another root problem and the “fever” is letting parents know that they are trying to work it through. When our children have a physical fever, we slow things down, rest, drink lots of water, cozy up in soothing pajamas and blankets, and clear the calendar to make room for healing. So many of these same principles apply when dealing with emotional or mental ill health. Think about how you can respond to your teen with compassion and understanding that they are hurting and in need of healing.
Don’t unintentionally dismiss their experience with insensitivity. Saying “calm down” or this is “too much” can be hurtful because it demonstrates a lack of empathy for the struggle they are having at the anxious moment. It’s not that easy for them to do something else or they likely would already be regulating themselves with a greater degree of success. Try to keep yourself calm and grounded and create space to listen and allow the big emotions to emerge. Responding with simple affirmations and encouragers indicating that you are present and there for them is the best way to help them let the emotions take their course. The intensity will pass for both of you if you can weather the storm together. Remember that no feeling is final. The activated anxiety will not persist forever and once it passes there will be more opportunity for rational and clarifying discussion but don’t rush to try to reason with someone who is in emotional distress.
Learn how to model and support self soothing-behaviours. When the nervous system is activated with stress it hijacks optimal functioning in favour of survival mode so it is important to help your body return to safety through calming interventions. Self-soothing creates calm in the body by changing something tangible and activating the senses to help you feel more grounded. Some examples include moving to a different environment (a quieter room, going outdoors) to reduce overstimulation or to change the view. Moving the body with some stretches or a short walk can help to move anxious energy in a different direction towards more balance. Consider changing the body’s temperature with a hot bath or a cold compress. Listen to music that will shift your mood or take in the aroma of an essential oil or a cup of tea. Shift the tone of your voice and the content of your self-talk to something less critical and more compassionate. Practice controlled deep breathing to communicate to your system that you are safe in the moment. Encouraging and practicing healthy self-soothing strategies can be a great way to support an anxious teen.
Take care of yourself. Parenting is not for the faint of heart! Parents need to have good self-care and emotional reserves to draw from if they wish to help their teens through tough things. While it is always a good idea for teens who are struggling with anxiety to have professional counselling support, it is also important for parents to acknowledge their own emotional needs in that caregiver role as well and reach out for support as needed. There are lots of ways that parents can manage their own stressors and energy levels to continue to be a stable presence in the lives of their children and a therapist might be able to help you with navigating your own thoughts and feelings and developing a personal self-care plan that will sustain you as you care for your teen.
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