Teens and Anxiety

Has your teenager ever said anything like this?

“I am going to fail this test, I know I am going to fail.”

“I can’t get everything done, and you keep yelling at me to do more.”

“Everyone else has more friends than me. What is wrong with me?”

These are just a few of the many things kids are anxious about these days. Stress and anxiety is on the rise for teenagers. According to a report in USA Today in 2014, over 51% of teens reported feeling anxious and stressed in the previous month.

Why so anxious?

Teenagers have so many things to juggle these days, it is not surprising they are experiencing stress and anxiety. Anxiety develops as a result of thought distortions: self-defeating thoughts; perfectionism; assumptions; all or nothing thinking and catastrophizing (spiraling to worst case scenario) to name a few.

Today’s teens are faced with incredible amounts of pressure: pressure from parents; pressure from peers or teachers; pressure to get into college; not enough time; pressure to participate in too many activities in order to get into college! It can be a vicious cycle. When a teen lacks the coping mechanisms to deal with those pressures, anxiety may develop.

Social media is also a huge contributor to teen anxiety.  The typical teenager logs more than 7 hours a day and more than 50 hours a week glued to a television, computer, or cell phone.  Research shows that too much screen time may cause teens to compare themselves to others, develop fears of missing out, skip out on physical exercise, and experience poor sleep and poor concentration. Each one of these negative impacts can lead to anxiety.

Signs Your Teen May Be Struggling With Anxiety

  • No time to spend socializing with friends
  • Staying up late just to get schoolwork finished
  • Saying things that indicate they’re overwhelmed- I have too much to do, there is no way I can get it all done
  • Your teen is a perfectionist and gets very upset if they don’t do things perfectly
  • Your teen mentions physical symptoms including heart racing, difficulty sleeping, headaches, poor concentration, changes in appetite, etc.

What You Can Do To Help Your Teen Manage Anxiety

  1. The first place to start when helping your teen manage their anxiety is with you. Parent’s contribute to teen’s stress by not figuring out their own, says Lori Lite, who created the parenting site Stress Free Kids: How do you handle anxiety? Are you calm and collected or do you scream and yell? Do you go for a walk, or do you eat junk food? Do you have distorted thoughts, or do you think and talk through things clearly? You get the point. Teens follow your lead. Make sure that you’re taking good care to manage your own anxiety and stress. Modeling good coping techniques will give your teen lessons they can use for a lifetime.
  2. Talk with them. And then… listen. When teens were asked if they talk to their parents when they are stressed or anxious, only about half said they did. The common complaint teenagers said as to why they don’t talk to their parents is because “parents don’t listen.” Talking to a teenager may seem like an oxymoron. Parents sometimes say, “When I approach my kids and ask how they’re doing, it just makes them mad.” Most experts recommend that you continue to communicate with your teens about anxiety and stress, even if it’s a challenge. A few quick tips: Put your phone down and give them your full attention. Try to remain nonjudgmental (think poker face). Listen without interrupting while validating their feelings. A great book that is helpful on this topic is How To Talk So Teens Will Listen And Listen So Teens Will Talk, by: Adele Faber.
  3. Help your teen get calm. An easy exercise to begin with is slow diaphragmatic breathing. Practice slowly inhaling to a count of 4, pause, and exhale slowly to a count of 6. Do this together with your teen for several minutes. Deep breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety by increasing the amount of oxygen flowing throughout the body and slowing down the heart rate. There are tons of relaxation apps that you and your teen can do together, and that your teen can do on their own.
  4. Teach your teen how to choose healthy thoughts. As mentioned before, there are many distorted thought patterns that create anxiety. By learning how to choose accurate thoughts, teens can reduce their anxiety. A few quick tips to help: First, help your teen identify their negative thinking pattern. Next, collect evidence- hard facts- this will usually disprove all or nothing thinking. Challenge the original thought. See if there is another conclusion that might make more sense. Write down a list to prove why the original thought is inaccurate. Negative thoughts are often patterns. With practice, negative patterns can be broken.
  5. Back to basics- nutrition. Parents need to be role models when it comes to food and emotions. Are you coping with stress and anxiety with food? For kids, extra pop, coffee, chocolate, and sugar can lead to a rollercoaster of energy (anxiety!) and emotion. Kids need to learn that food is not coping. If your teen is eating for comfort, teach them alternatives to deal with their emotions.
  6. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night for teenagers. About two-thirds of 17-year-olds report sleeping less than 7 hours a night. With homework, activities, family and friends, sleep seems to be taking the brunt. About one in five teens report that when they don’t get enough sleep, they feel more stressed, have a harder time concentrating, and feel more irritable. Helping teens realize that sleep should be a top priority will in turn help make the rest of their many daily tasks easier.
  7. Exercise is one of the best ways to decrease anxiety. It naturally improves mood, increases energy and decreases stress. Exercise can be anything your teen enjoys that gets them moving. This is something that can benefit everyone- make it part of your family routine to get out and go for walks or bike rides together.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out for additional guidance on how to manage teen anxiety!

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