Teenage Anxiety

We humans are conditioned from an early age to think about the consequences of our words, our actions and our attitudes and most of us would accept it’s only natural to worry from time to time. For the purpose of clarity I’m going to borrow a dictionary definition and define worry as ‘to feel troubled about actual or potential problems’. When worry is based around actual problems it can be useful as we problem solve our way out of a trouble, and some future prediction can be helpful and necessary to live a balanced and productive life.

Anxiety is future based thinking gone astray. Sufferers take a current concern and project it into the future, taking the useful tool of worry too far. It becomes constricting, a fear based scenario of doom, gloom and catastrophic consequences that has its human stuck. Viewing their future through the veil of anxiety can leave sufferers caught; too scared to move forward and too fearful of the consequences of their actions to claim anything for themselves. It can be restrictive to the extreme and will often project out onto others who are important in their lives. Anxious people will withdraw into themselves, medicate in a variety of ways and live their lives in a cloud of should haves and inaction. Often they build up a wall, trying to find some sense of control by holding their fears close to them and not trusting to life or others to help them solve their problems.

Does it sound like fun? Not to me. And teenagers seem to have it particularly bad. They’re right in a life stage when they’ve got decisions to make that can have an enormous impact on the course of their lives. An amount of teenage angst is to be expected as they ponder their futures and take those first steps to independence. But for some teens this anxiety can be overwhelming, intense and downright scary. True, there are lots of things to consider. But when the worry becomes too intense it increases itself into anxiety. It’s like tightening the spirals that turn a coil into a spring. Everything is that much more reactive to the next thing.

Worry is when you are able to note the things that may go wrong, but take informed action anyway; confident that the consequences of things going right will eventually outweigh the consequences of the risk. Anxiety keeps you stuck. Worry comes forward with you, a kind of 6th sense that is there to keep you safe while you live your life as you’re meant to. Anxiety just stops you living your life.

No parent ever would wish anxiety on their teenager. We are all born for greatness and it is every parents wish for their children to live a happy life; to have fulfilling relationships and to be successful with what they choose to do. If you suspect (or know) your teen is becoming anxious then taking the time to address it with them is proactive, empowering and gives them invaluable life skills.

Action eases anxiety so teach your teen to look for the things they can control: health, clutter, study, food, exercise, themselves. Give your children and especially your teenagers control over these things. Remember, you’re their guide, not their boss as they enter adolescence. If you haven’t started already, look for ‘just-in-time’ lessons on anything you might think is important for them to know: nutrition, personal organisation, empowering habits are all there for them to learn.

Think about the things you consider to be important to know how to do. Then take time to pass this knowledge onto your teenager. Here are some examples to get you started: how to cook a nutritious meal from scratch, how to keep your room clean, how to clean the toilet & use the washing machine, how to speak assertively with your friends, how to study, how to budget, how to persist.

They may not like being held responsible for these seemingly mundane tasks at first, but they will thank you for the lessons later. These are habits and activities that give a person immediate control over their lives. Teenagers have an enormous amount of ‘firsts’ to get good at as they move into the world. There will be moments of overwhelm when they think about all the things they need to know when they are taking a first step, especially one that involves them moving away from the family home. Already having some basic skills mastered will free up their brain space to confidently tackle things they may be worrying about. Knowledge is power and these skills will give your teenager an immense amount of personal power and confidence. And an added bonus of teaching and expecting your teenager to be able to do these early skills independently is that you set the scene for a relationship that is open, honest and will leave you as a source of guidance in their future.

Medication may be an option in some cases. Be guided by your Doctor on this but do understand that there are no long term studies on the effects of medication on the brain. Ask about the risk of addiction to a course of medication before it is started and how many years the Doctor thinks your teen may need to stay on the medication. Bear in mind that potential teenage experiments with drugs and alcohol will also be a factor in whether medication is going to be useful.

Parenting never comes with a rule book and you may make a decision that seemed right at the time but proves to be wrong further on down the track. Don’t waste time beating yourself up for it. The important thing now is to help your teen take some form of movement so they can push past the stuck.

There is an understanding of anxiety as a mental health illness but I prefer to think of it as a pattern of thinking that your brain runs. Like many brain patterns this may be running undetected and largely unconsciously in the background. An illness is something you catch and once you have caught it you are at its mercy until you get better. A brain pattern is something that you have more control over. While it can be hard work to change it, you can choose to learn to take control over it.

Another tool to guide your teenager through persistent or strong anxiety is to introduce them to the idea of sitting with anxiety. Noticing where it is in their body; belly? chest? throat? shoulders? head? legs? Get them to describe how it feels. Feel it, accept it, ask it what it’s trying to teach you. It may not be pleasant to intentionally sit with an emotion that is causing so many problems but it has turned up for a reason. It will have a lesson that it would like to teach your teenager as it helps them grow.

An inner voice may try and tell your teenager that anxiety is something they have done wrong. That is not true. They have done nothing wrong, and they are not at fault for having anxiety. Give them the message that they are unconditionally loved and be thankful that you are able to guide them, support them and be there for them. Parenting is a hard job and it takes courage to face anxiety with someone you love deeply. But know that what you say and what you do makes a difference. For this week I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a poem I especially liked:

“When things are uncomfortable, challenging, or difficult,
the temptation is to run, to disconnect.
But what happens when, just for a moment,
you find the courage to stay?”

Jeff Foster & Matt Licata

For more tools on helping teenagers with depression or anxiety visit www.movingthrough.net

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