Being an Anxiety Informed Parent: Helping Teens With Anxiety
Teen mental health has taken more prominence on the national stage. As we see increased teen anxiety, teen depression, panic attacks and other emotional struggles, we need to help provide relevant information for parents, teachers, and others who live or work with our teens.
The following can help parents who may have a teen struggling with anxiety. Along with teen depression, rates of teen anxiety have increased over the last 10 years. The following provides an overview of anxiety, it's prevalence, signs and symptoms, and ways to help. If you have a teen struggling with anxiety, becoming more anxiety informed can help.
How Common is Anxiety in the United States?
Anxiety is the most common challenging emotional struggle that people face in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 19.1% of adults experienced an anxiety disorder in the last year. Anxiety affects adult females (23.4%) at a higher rate than adult males (14.3%).
For teens, it is estimated that 31.9% of teenagers have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety affects teen girls (38.0%) more than teen boys (26.1%). Teens are experiencing higher rates of anxiety when compared to adults today. The same is true for teen depression. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are also experiencing a nationwide teen mental health epidemic.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), teens today report experiencing as much stress as adults. Yet, when school is in, teens report experiencing higher levels of stress than adults report. This may be a large factor into the increase in teen anxiety.
These studies from the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association were conducted before the pandemic. If it was a serious problem then, the pandemic has only served to increase the number of teens experiencing teen anxiety and other emotional struggles.
Signs and Symptoms of Teen Anxiety
With teen anxiety increasing, it is important that we understand what anxiety is. It is also important to understand how to recognize anxiety in teens. In order to be able to help, parents need information and tools that allow them the opportunity to help.
We can start with what anxiety in teens looks like. Some common feelings anxiety can leave a teen experiencing are:
Feelings of nervous, restlessness, or feeling 'keyed up'
Feeling a sense of fear, worry, danger, or impending doom
Persistent worry that is difficult to control
Anxiety can also cause a teen to experience physical symptoms such as:
Difficulty remembering things or concentrating
Rapid heart rate
Breathing rapidly or hyperventilating
Perspiration or sweating
Stomach aches or other gastrointestinal problems
Exhaustion or feelings or weakness
Difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep
For teens only (compared to adults), symptoms of anxiety may also include:
Increased irritability and,
Understanding what the signs and symptoms of teen anxiety can help parents be proactive in helping. Sometimes it's as simple as talking with your teen about what they are experiencing. At times, they just need a listening ear to help them work through a problem. Other times, your teen may need additional support.
What Causes Teen Anxiety?
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and research conducted by the Psychiatric Clinics of North America, anxiety has its origin in the brain.
The limbic system including the amygdala play a role in the symptoms of anxiety. The amygdala is a structure in our brain that is often referred to as the 'fear center' of the brain. The thoughts and feelings one experiences who have anxiety are fear related.
The role of the amygdala is to alert our nervous system of danger. The amygdala does not think, rationalize, or analyze -- it simply perceives. When the amygdala perceives danger it, along with other structures of the limbic system in our brain, kick into action to protect us from the perceived danger.
The amygdala triggers the limbic system which releases various hormones to help prepare our bodies to 'fight' off the danger or run from it.
The hormones that are released may increase our heart rate to pump blood to the large muscle groups in our body. They may cause us to breathe rapidly taking in more oxygen. Adrenalin may be released to provide a boost to energy and strength. The fight/flight responses sole purpose is designed to keep us safe and ultimately, alive.
When a person has an overactive amygdala, the amygdala perceives danger where there is none. Our rational minds may understand that there is no danger present.
Regardless of what our rational minds may perceive, an over active amygdala may perceive danger where there is none. Once the amygdala perceives danger, the fight/flight response is activated and the limbic system kicks into gear.
Complexities in Being Able to Recognize Signs & Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens
There are complexities with today's teen that can make it difficult others to recognize and see the signs of anxiety teens. Technology is a part of that complexity as well as the stage of development the teen is in.
The "Playground" Has Changed
Remember growing up and begging your parents to allow you 30 more minutes to play outside? We would spend time as kids exploring the area, play kick the can, hide and seek outdoors, etc. I remember playing night games, around the block tag, and creating games to play outdoors.
As a teen, being grounded and not being able to leave the house was the absolute worst. Not being able to GO OUT and hang with my friends was painful. Every part of my teen being was yearning to leave the house. STAYING IN was a consequence tantamount to todays taking away a teen's electronics.
Today, the playground has shifted. Because of technology, much of the teen's social life is spent online. It can be challenging for parents to see the signs of anxiety as a result.
Teens today spend more time interacting through text than talking with their friends. They also spend more time a part from parents when communicating with their friends. This can make it difficult for parents to see signs and symptoms of teen anxiety.
Teen's Reluctance to Communicate Needs
Teens today also may not communicate with their parents about what the anxiety they are experiencing. There are various reasons for this. Below are some of the reasons teens have given us for why they didn't want to tell their parents:
"I didn't want to add more stress to their lives."
"I didn't want them to be disappointed in me."
"It was hard for me to understand what I was feeling. How could my parents understand if I can't explain it to them?"
I didn't think my parents could help."
"I didn't think my parents would take it serious."
"I didn't know if my parents would let me go to therapy."
Symptoms of anxiety are heavy and ever present. This may be the first time your teen may be experiencing a serious emotional struggle. They may not have the words to put to their experience. They may struggle with how to move forward in getting help as a result.
Is It a Just a Teen Phase?
This one is a challenging one. We know that during the teen years there are a lot of changes and development taking place. One of the changes that takes place is with the teens moods.
Teens are known for being moody. They have a lot of stress trying to figure out their place in the world, who they are, and what they value. All while their brains and bodies are in a state of rapid development and change.
So, when you start to see signs of anxiety, it can be challenging to determine if it's just a teen phase or something more serious. One of the tips given below is on communicating with your teen. This is one of the most important tips we can give to parents.
Ask your teen how they are feeling. You can talk about the stress level they are experiencing. They may at first tell you that they are feeling "fine" and that their stress level is "fine" and everything is just "fine".
But, as you show consistent interest in their emotional and mental health, they often start opening up. There is a lot you can glean from the non-answers from teens as well in the meantime.
If you are concerned, it could be a good idea to call a therapist and ask for a consultation session or phone call. A therapist can help you navigate whether it may sound like a teen phase or if there may be something more serious going on with your teen.
As a Parent, What Can I Do to Help My Teen?
It can be a helpless feeling as an adult in trying to help a teen with anxiety. Both the teen and the parent can attempt to reason out the reasons why the teen shouldn't be anxious. There are logical reasons why they shouldn't stress about certain things that make rational sense.
Yet, anxiety is rooted in the emotional part of our brain. The 'emotional mind' is designed to protect us and keep us safe. It errs on the side of safety and wellbeing.
Once the emotional mind labels something as dangerous, our rational, reasonable minds alone often cannot reason with the emotional mind. As a result, the limbic system is activated and the nervous system is kept on high alert at all times.
Spend Quality, One-on-One Time With Your Teen
For parents of teenagers, it's important to spend time talking with your teens. Make it a point each week to spend one on one time with each of your teens.
You may get resistance as this is a stage where friends are more important than parents. But it's okay to insist. It will show how much you care about them and once the decision is made, they generally get on board.
The one-on-one time should be something that the two of you enjoy doing together. It doesn't have to be a big event and can be as simple as taking a walk in the park together. While on the walk, take some time to ask about how they are doing in various areas of their lives. Express interest and listen intently.
You can ask about any concerns they may have about school, extracurricular activities, friends, etc. In these conversations, you may start to hear your teen describe symptoms of anxiety that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Listen for the underlying feelings and what is not being said in response to your questions.
Teens may have a difficult time understanding what anxiety is. As adults, we have life experience where we may have felt anxious in various situations. We can identify what the feeling is and find ways to manage the anxiety.
Remember the above section on "Teen's Reluctance to Communicate Needs". They may not approach you with what they need. When you approach them and do so consistently and in a caring, empathic way, they often will start to open up about what they struggle to communicate.
The crucial conversations are important. Not only will it help strengthen your relationship, but it will help you gain insight into your teen's inner, emotional experience.
Exercise is the Best Medicine
As an article by the Harvard Medical School outlines, one of the best, non-pharmaceutical, ways to help reduce anxiety is exercise. Set a goal with your teen in completing a 5k together. Maybe the goal is to simply hit the gym 3 days a week. Whatever the goal, consistent exercise has been shown to be nearly as or as effective as anti-anxiety medication.
Yoga: Meditation in Motion
Also from the Harvard Medical School, Yoga has been shown to be effective in helping reduce anxiety. During Yoga, your mind is centered on the act of positioning your body is specific positions. It provides exercise for your body but also strengthens your teen's mind against anxiety.
Be your teen's yoga partner. This will add a level of accountability for both of you. Commit to doing Yoga "x" number of times a week together. During yoga, you can also take time to talk to your teen and further strengthen your relationship.
The Mayo Clinic recommends meditation to help offset the effects of stress and anxiety. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to help with symptoms of anxiety. Focusing our minds on the present, letting thoughts of future worries or past experiences, pass by and re-centering on the present moment helps reduce anxiety.
This is something that the teen can do with you and/or on their own. There are so many free apps out there that can help your teen practice mindfulness meditation. Those apps that cost are usually low cost and worth every penny.
Teens with anxiety may find it hard to concentrate and remember like they used to. They are capable to do schoolwork yet may find themselves falling behind. As a result, they may now have anxiety related to attending school.
With teens who struggle with anxiety, school refusal looks different than teens who are oppositional and defiant. The teen with anxiety may become upset and start to cry because they can't work through the panic that ensues when they start to step out the door for school. The oppositional and defiant teen may argue, yell, threaten, etc. until they are allowed to miss school.
For parents who are anxiety informed, you may continue to have expectations for your teen to attend school. They need to attend. But, you can also partner with the school to help you and your teen. While your teen is working hard to overcome anxiety, the school can provide supports on their end to help your teen be successful
The parents contacting the school to let them know of the situation can help. Often, schools will make school accommodations to help the teen while they are learning to manage their anxiety. This can relieve the teen from the stress and pressure of feeling like they are falling behind and the rush to get caught up.
Parental Support vs. Parental Control
For parents, it's important to find ways to help your teen with anxiety while not taking over. It can be very tempting for parents to want their teen to feel better and take over the process or rescue their teen in a loving attempt to help.
This can feel overwhelming for the teen or cause them to feel that their parents may not have confidence in their ability to do it on their own. This can also prevent your teen from experiencing the anxiety.
In order to learn to conquer their anxiety they have to feel it. Rescuing them from from experiences that may result in anxiety will further entrench the anxiety. This can cause it to become more difficult for your teen to overcome their anxiety. Resist the temptation to take over while finding ways to help.
Seeing Through an Anxiety Informed Lens
As parents, we can educate ourselves on what anxiety is, where is stems from, and tips for helping a teen who has anxiety. The more you can learn about the etiology of anxiety, the more your parenting paradigm can shift to an anxiety informed model of parenting.
For example, avoidance of the thing that reminds teens of their anxiety is a symptom of anxiety. Let's take a teen who is struggling to go to FFA on a regular basis. Sometimes they go, others they say they can't go.
How would a parent with an anxiety informed lens respond? How might a parent who does not yet know their teen struggles with anxiety and isn't knowledgeable of the etiology and impact of anxiety respond?
This doesn't mean we lower our expectations of our teens. Yet, it can help us respond in a much more understanding manner. Now, being armed with information on how you can help a teen with anxiety, you may be able to help your teen through the anxiety.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling Approach to Treating Teen Anxiety
The sooner you seek help for teen anxiety the better the outcomes usually are. In many situations, it makes sense to try to help your teen learn to manage and overcome the anxiety in the home. If after you have taken this step and your teen's anxiety remains or seems to be getting worse, it may be time to seek out a therapist.
There are those of us who have chosen to specialize in teen therapy and family counseling. When seeking help for your teen, you want a therapist who has spent their career or much of their career specializing in helping teens and families succeed.
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we approach teen anxiety in a variety of ways. Each teen is unique and there is not a one size fits all approach in treating teen anxiety. We also use those approaches that have been supported by research and found to be effective. Some of the approaches we use to treat anxiety in teens are:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an approach that developed in the 1960's. A psychiatrist name Aaron Beck developed CBT as a therapeutic approach to help individuals with a variety of emotional or behavioral struggles.
Being developed in the 1960's, CBT has been around a long time and is one of the most researched and studied therapeutic approaches for teen anxiety. It has been shown to be effective not only in treating anxiety in teens, but in other emotional or behavioral challenges. Our teen counseling and family therapy specialists provide:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for teen depression
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for panic attacks
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for ADHD/ADD
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Trauma
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for PTSD treatment
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
Cognitive Behavioral therapy for Substance abuse, and more
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for teen anxiety focuses on challenging irrational core beliefs one holds about themselves. From these irrational core beliefs spring automatic thoughts that tend to be self-critical in nature. Our emotions often are created due to the automatic thoughts a teen may think.
Teen Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches a teen with anxiety how to challenge these irrational core beliefs. CBT also provides the tools and skills on how to challenge the automatic thoughts and therefore.
When teens are able to manage their automatic thoughts and challenge their validity, their anxiety begins to lessen until it is at a manageable level or non-existent.
We provide Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for teens for those in the Katy, tx and Houston area. Teen Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be effective generally in 20 sessions.