Posted: Jan 29, 2014 11:00 AM
 
If you are the parent of a worried teenager, rest assured that you are not alone. Anxiety is the chief mental health complaint of young people.

Contributed by: Reid Wilson, Ph.D. & Lynn Lyons, LCSW, authors of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents & Playing with Anxiety

Anxiety hits hard in the teenage years

The challenges of social life and increased academic pressures push kids toward brand new experiences and responsibilities, along with the shadow side of hesitation and insecurity. Specific learning difficulties can surface as students take on more complicated tasks or have to speak up in class. Sports become more demanding, and hormones can wreak havoc with appearance. Whether social, intellectual or physical, anything can serve as a source of worries. Teens are caught between wanting to achieve and being afraid of failing, of wanting to belong and fearing rejection. When they believe they won't measure up, or when they expect rejection, they withdraw.

At the very time when they are faced with huge changes — graduating from high school, waiting to hear from colleges, moving away from home or deciding on a career path — your advice and desire to help are met with resistance.

To make matters worse, teens are developmentally more likely to reject adult input as they strive to be independent and find their own answers. At the very time when they are faced with huge changes — graduating from high school, waiting to hear from colleges, moving away from home or deciding on a career path — your advice and desire to help are met with resistance. But when your teen is also anxious, then no degree of reassurance or encouragement seems to be enough, because you can't give your worried teen what she's looking for: a guarantee that everything will turn out perfectly.

And it's this need for certainty that allows anxiety to grab your teen and hold on tight. Teens understand intellectually and rationally that there are things we can't know. We can't know when we'll catch a cold, or when our pets will die or when our computer will crash. They understand that life can be unpredictable. But during this time of flux, they sometimes lose their ability to tolerate such big uncertainties. Most anxious teens get trapped by the following rigid patterns when making plans and thinking about the future:

  • Perfectionism: "There is a right answer, and if I just keep [thinking; studying; researching; asking enough people], I'll come up with the right answer." Also: "Everything must be done perfectly."
  • Catastrophic thinking: "If one thing goes wrong, then everything will fall apart, and I won't be successful in life." Or: "If I don't score high enough this time on the SAT, I'll never get into that college, and that will just destroy me."
  • The One Path Myth: "There is one path to a successful life and I have to find it or stay on it, no matter what!" Or, "I have to get a 5.0 and make the varsity team to get into an Ivy League school. And then I have to take pre-med or I'll never make it into a top med school."

The right way to fail

These thinking errors clearly create anxiety and stress in teens (or any of us!), so what can you as a parent do to help? You can start by paying attention to how you and your family handle failure and mistakes. Research tells us convincingly that your own relationship with anxiety and uncertainty — and how you role model this to your child — significantly impacts how she sees the world. When is something good enough? How do you move on to your next task? What does your family say about screw-ups? Now may be the time to notice and change your own response to mistakes, to sprinkle family conversation with phrases that normalize screw-ups, struggles and imperfection.

Fighting the right battles

As you see your teen becoming anxious, look for opportunities to let her know that this is a time of uncertainty, but you have confidence in her ability to problem solve along the way.

Teens also need to hear that they aren't expected to know everything, and that they can't see into the future. The goal is not to make all good decisions, but to develop problem solving skills so that you can manage the inevitable bad decisions. Flexibility is key, and this means knowing when to push harder and when to be satisfied with a less-than-perfect result. As you see your teen becoming anxious, look for opportunities to let her know that this is a time of uncertainty, but you have confidence in her ability to problem solve along the way. Giving advice about how you would handle things might not be as valuable as instilling a sense of autonomy in your teen — and this may mean backing off the lectures and letting her know that you are there to support her as she makes her choices.

Anxiously moving forward

Teens need to hear that they are supposed to be anxious as they make important decisions! Expecting to be calm and relaxed during such a time of change is unrealistic. In fact, moving forward while learning how to manage anxious worries is the skill we most strongly promote. If teens believe that staying calm is the goal, then they will avoid taking risks, remain where they feel most comfortable and never build up their own sense of confidence. Let your teens feel their feelings, but then support them as they take action and courageously move into uncertainty. Although your first instinct may be to step in and make it OK, know that you are equipping your teens with valuable skills when you model and support a more flexible — and independent — path into adulthood.

Download it!^If your teen is experiencing anxiety, download Playing with Anxiety on Amazon.

More on teens

Why teens are wonderful
Texting my teen
When change signals trouble in your teen

Topics: