My heart is racing, and my head is spinning. I feel as though I can hear my heart pounding. I have a ringing in my ears, and my breathing feels like I just ran a marathon, but I haven’t moved a muscle. Then the bell rings, and I just stand there by my locker— and now I am late for class. When I get home, all I can say as she looks at me with worried eyes is, “Sorry, Mom, I don’t know what happened.”
For a teenager these types of anxious moments can occur in a flash. As a parent, I can tell you that you are not alone wishing there was a secret ingredient or formula that could help your teen deal with anxious feelings and challenging situations. If it seems that Gen Z’s are growing up and coming of age in a time of heightened stress and anxiety, it’s because you are right. Anxiety can be triggered in countless ways. From a death in the family or divorce to feeling unsafe in school or fearful of being judged or embarrassed in a social situation. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states that hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers have been doubling over the past decade. While, there’s not an instant remedy to cure anxiety there are ways in which you can help them manage it but it takes commitment, effort and patience.
Teen anxiety is not something new. Between childhood and adulthood, teens start caring more about their looks and social acceptance and struggle to find their own way. However, today’s teens have added pressures and anxieties that did not exist in past decades. Social media is a big part of most teenagers’ lives today. So are the added pressures that come with these social platforms. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Research has found that the longer teens engage in social media, the more likely they feel like the lives of people they follow on these platforms are better than their own.
Another significant impact social media has on today’s teens is the lack of connection to others in the real world. If your teen spends hours of their day on screen, they are not healthily engaging in the world. This disengagement can make them feel anxious when talking to people face to face, dealing with conflicts with peers, or speaking up in class. According to the NIH, nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. These numbers have been rising steadily. While the world our teens engage in today is not the same one we, as their parents, experienced. There are ways we can help them navigate the pressures and reduce, regulate and help them overcome their anxiety.
1. Help Them Feel their Feelings
Feelings are signals from the body that help us understand ourselves and make good decisions. An essential skill in helping to ease anxiety is becoming aware of the physical symptoms they produce. One of the best ways to help your teen become aware of their feelings is to allow them to express what they are feeling. For example, when they are anxious, ask them if they feel warm or if their heart feels like it’s beating faster. Allowing them to describe these sensations will help them gain control by giving them a tangible avenue to focus on when they are experiencing anxiety.
2. Don’t Disregard Their Emotions
Even parents with the best intentions can often be unaware that they are invalidating their teen’s emotions. It can be as simple as discrediting them in every day moments like, if your teen complains about being cold and you comment back that they cannot possibly be cold when it’s so hot outside. While it might seem inconsequential, if you constantly disregard their feelings, it can lead your teen to stop trusting themselves and what they are feeling. If your teen doesn’t feel like you are listening, or they feel like you are just going to criticize what they say, they will withdraw. Acknowledging their feelings can be hard when they are struggling with anxiety but allowing them to communicate with you is one of the best ways to help them regulate their emotions. Instead of trying to come up with a solution or fix it, try sitting with them in their struggle. Allow your teen to share without judgment or interruption, and then most importantly, let them know that their feelings are okay even if they are hard ones.
3. Help Them Become Aware of Their Self-Talk
Our thoughts influence our feelings and then our behaviors. When your teen is stuck in a negative self-talk spiral one of the best ways they can overcome it is to help them come up with ways to turn it around. Help your teen become aware of trigger statements or words they might be saying to themselves that lead to anxiety. Some of the top negative-self talk words start with what if statements like, “What if I say the speech and everybody laughs at me?” Instead help them rephrase it with a positive outcome. Counselor Melanie Hall, M.A., LCPC, recommends limiting your usage of “always,” “never,” and “should.” Hall says, “using absolutes such as ‘never’ and ‘always’ disempowers a person, and is self-defeating.“ By taking these words out of your self-talk, you instantly have thoughts that are less drastic, more balanced, and probably less negative.”
4. Help Them Come Up with Healthy Ways to Cope
Breath in, Breathe Out
A great way to help your teen deal with anxiety is to find out what helps them feel better. Fortunately, one of the best ways to ease anxiety is something your teen has access to all of the time, their breath.
Deep breathing can help lessen stress and anxiety. Breathing slower and more deeply from the stomach, signals the nervous system to calm down. Teaching your teen the power of focused breathing can be a game changer during moments of high anxiety.
Encouraging your teen to keep physically active can also help them deal with anxiety. Regular exercise may help ease the pressures they are feeling by releasing feel good endorphins and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance their sense of well-being.
According to an article published in Harvard Health,* aerobic exercise is beneficial. A simple bike ride, dance class, or even a brisk walk can be a powerful tool for those suffering from chronic anxiety. Activities like these also help people who feel overly nervous about an upcoming test, a big presentation, or an important meeting.
*Can Exercise Help Treat Anxiety?
The Power of Zzzzz’s
Between tests, sports, clubs, jobs, and all the other pressures teens face, sleep is one of the first things to take a backseat. According to Johns Hopkins pediatrician Michael Crocetti, M.D., M.P.H., teens need 9 to 9½ hours of sleep per night—an hour or so more than they need at age 10. Unfortunately, lack of sleep can lead to more frequent feelings of anxiety. Encouraging your teen to get a good night’s sleep can help them improve their mental well-being and manage anxiety.
5. Take a Break with Your Teen
Sometimes just spending time with your teen can make all the difference. Try spending time with them and doing an activity that will help them to take their mind off their anxieties. Taking some time away from their stressors can help give them the space they need to better pinpoint and tackle the issues that are causing them. This respite, is, especially, important when it comes to technology. Growing research finds that the more time teenagers spend on social media, the more likely they will experience mental health symptoms like anxiety, isolation, and hopelessness. Make sure to find time to play with your teen by finding something fun to do, like going to a museum or concert, playing a sport, or cooking a meal together. It’s also important to be completely engaged. Parents, this means doing your best to take your own time off from screens and giving your teen your undivided attention. A little break can go a long way in helping them handle their anxiety.
Carolina Droze is a LSIS presenter of K-5th programming, freelance writer and copywriter. She is also a mom, wife, surfer, nature enthusiast and a lover of loud music and dancing like she just don’t care.