Spring can be a tough time in the world of a teenager. Yes, the flowers are blooming, the trees are getting greener and the air is filled with the sweet scent of spring flowers. But many high schoolers are experiencing the stress of finals, sitting for AP exams, taking or re-taking the SAT or ACT, navigating the college application process, and of course, preparing for prom. And if those tasks aren’t already anxiety provoking, let’s not underestimate the power of peer approval. School has become somewhat of a social minefield for teens, and acceptance from their peers is imperative.
And those are just a fraction of the stuff that concern teens this time of year.
Rising academic standards, increased competition for colleges, extracurricular activities, and bourgeoning romantic interests are all aspects of being a teen that can lead to feelings of failure and rejection… which can then open the doorway for anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal and unavoidable part of life, especially when experiencing something new or transitioning to a new stage in life. For teens, anxiety can show up in a number of ways: shortness of breath, picking of skin, feeling overwhelmed, or feelings of sudden panic are just a few. Anxiety can even show up in one’s thinking patterns such as in “what-if” thoughts about being judged or criticized, and persistent worries about the future.
The way you acknowledge and respond to a teen showing signs of anxiety is critical in helping them to foster a sense of competence. What can parents do to help teens manage high anxiety periods? Here are five simple strategies to consider:
1. Spending quality time.
Adolescence is often characterized as a stage of waning parental influence as children begin to slowly distance themselves from the values of their parents. While there is truth to that theory, it does not tell the full story. Years of experience in education and mental health has taught me that while parent-teen relationships are not always peaceful, they can be pivotal. Teenagers need their parents and other loving adults to guide them as they develop and mature. There are studies that even suggest that teenagers need more quality time from parents than toddlers! Open communication and support can buffer some of the turbulence of adolescence. Making yourself available physically and emotionally—even when you feel pushed away—during stressful periods outweighs any previous conflicts. Impromptu conversations during family meals and while driving to the soccer field really matter. Over time, both parents and teens will balance the need for independence and closeness.
2. Encouraging a tech break.
Due to the pervasiveness of technology in our society, teens—and adults—find it difficult to unplug. A student recently shared her experience with a one week “Social Media Detox” challenge posed by her English teacher. While the thought of giving up Instagram and Snapchat was initially terrifying, she observed how immensely freeing it eventually became. Most teens are connected to technology each day and more so for social reasons rather than academic ones. The challenge for parents is that it is nearly impossible to limit access to most forms of technology, and you may not even desire to. However, guidance and supervision is still important, even in the teen years. Focus on moderation rather than prevention. Participating in a self-imposed break can help to reduce the feelings of pressure in an already overwhelmed teen. For those reluctant to detox completely, offer up a compromise of deleting saved bookmarks from their internet browser, or turning off email notifications on their smart phones . . . at least for a weekend.
3. Sharing your experiences.
Adolescence is a time for identity formation. With the increasing pressures of academic achievement and fixations around appearance, it is no wonder that teen anxiety is on the rise. Despite mounting pressures, one comforting fact is that teens respond favorably to, and learn from anyone to whom they feel a personal connection. One parenting tip that I frequently offer is to reflect about a time when you faced a similar challenge as your teen is facing or experienced debilitating anxiety. Aim for a 10-15-minute conversation with your teen while in the car or when taking the dog for a walk. Before doing so, ask yourself the following: What did you wish your parents had done to help you? What would you have wanted to hear? What did they do that you valued and respected? Respond to your teen with empathy and share how you successfully managed the issue. Or, how maybe you weren’t so successful initially. Then allow your teen to explore his or her own thoughts and feelings related to what you’ve shared.
4. Offering perspectives.
Journeying from childhood to adulthood is difficult. In just a few short years, teens go through a significant number of physical and emotional changes. Also, decisions such as where to apply to college or who to ask out for prom may seem exciting to onlookers but may trigger feelings of dread for a teenager. The reality of independence can be terrifying. Teens often feel the pressure to be all things to all people. Remind your teen that who they are is much more important than their SAT score or who they date. Encourage your teen to view their worries about their future as a normal and natural part of growing up. Parents can take concrete steps to help their teen better understand their unique experiences through journaling, reading short stories, and watching films that celebrate the adolescent journey. Yes, some choices about the future need to be made now, but it is okay to not know everything and to continue to explore. Offering perspective and repeatedly reminding your teen that they are fully accepted just for who they are, goes a long way towards enhancing self-esteem and decreasing anxiety.
5. Getting physical.
Teens need both challenge and involvement. The teens that I work with often describe anxiety as “. . . wanting to jump out of my skin.” Anxiety can be both mentally and physically draining. Teens are often short on energy because of too little physical activity. Balancing the pressure of a rigorous academic load with aerobic activity can alleviate stress and anxiety which can be stored in the body. Even if your teen isn’t particularly athletic, help him or her to find ways to slow down, have more fun, and seek a more balanced lifestyle. Bowling, skating, or simply reading a good book are great ways to decompress. Engaging in fun and relaxing activities such as art, dance, and music can elicit positive emotions and social bonding.
The emotional, mental, and physiological symptoms of anxiety can be very frightening and confusing for teens. The good news? Anxiety is very common and quite treatable. And, yes, it can also be overwhelming. If your teen is struggling, it may be helpful to speak with a family physician, school counselor, or a licensed therapist. Finding the right strategies for your teen, along with a healthy dose of patience and compassion can work wonders.