The teenage years are full of new experiences and situations. These years are the foundation of figuring out who you are as an individual and where you are headed in life. This can cause a lot of teen anxiety and stress.With teen anxiety on the rise, parents often wonder when to seek help. When is it normal for a teenager to feel anxious and when should a parent be alarmed and try to equip them with additional resources? What can parents do to better support their child who is struggling with anxiety? Is this anxious behavior creating an anxiety-filled future?
Consider these scenarios:
Julie is a seventeen-year-old who has worked tirelessly to maintain a good GPA throughout her high school career. She has given up a social life, puts pressure on herself to make perfect grades, and spends her weekends volunteering to better her resume so she has a higher chance of getting into an ivy league school. She spends most nights awake studying and preparing for every project, test, and extracurricular because she wants to succeed.
Dan is a sixteen-year-old who has severe test anxiety. Before every test, he begins to have a panic attack and asks to go to the restroom to take deep breaths and regain his composure. He is so afraid of failing and upsetting his parents that he puts intense pressure on himself.
Mary is a seventeen-year-old who is gearing up for her dream – trying out for the lead role in the community theater’s established and renowned drama program. She has always dreamed of being an actress and this program would help her along in the journey. She is nervous and extremely anxious, but she is excited about the future possibilities.
Teen Anxiety: When is it a Problem?
Each of these young adults is experiencing teen anxiety. But how do you know if it’s a problem?
It is normal for a teenager to become anxious about:
- Asking their crush on a date or going on their first date
- Trying out for the school’s basketball team
- Taking their SATs
- Singing in front of a large crowd
- Maintaining a good GPA so they can apply to the college of their choice
- Giving a speech in front of a large group
- Wondering if anyone is going to ask them to prom or if they will be flying solo
It is normal for a teenager to feel “butterflies” in their stomach for something that is outside their comfort zone or for something that plays a large part in planning for their future. The fight-or-flight response is the body’s reaction to what is happening or what is ahead.
While anxiety is not necessarily fun to deal with, it is part of the body’s defense system when there is a perceived threat or danger. Those feelings can serve a purpose. The release of hormones in the fight-or-flight response can help propel you forward to accomplish the task at hand.
The rush of adrenaline can help you focus in that situation to see the task through. One might get sweaty hands, feel their heart beating faster, or get shaky hands or a dry mouth right before a tryout, audition, or big test.
However, people respond differently to different situations and feelings. Some people have previous trauma that can exacerbate the fight-flight response. Some people may have heightened anxiety that seems out of proportion with the situation. And some people may have difficulty controlling their anxiety and cannot do the task at hand.
Things to Consider When Helping Your Teenager
Here are a few things to consider and try when trying to decipher teen anxiety:
Validate What Your Teen is Feeling
Instead of constantly telling your teen to stop worrying or that they are overreacting, try to validate their feelings and talk through things with them. Listen to them. Support them. Ask what you can do to help.
Try to avoid saying, “You are being dramatic” or “Stop being so silly, you have a great life.” These statements can be more damaging, increase anxiety levels, and cause shame. This can also cause your teen to feel like they cannot talk to you when they are struggling.
Normal Anxiety is Usually Short-Lived
The nervousness before a test, the anxiety that hits right before you sing the first note at a talent show, and waiting to get that first dance out of your system at prom; those are all “normal” moments of anxiety.
Unhealthy anxiety usually intensifies and becomes a part of everyday life. If a teen is having panic attacks before a test every single day, becomes unable to sleep worrying about their grades and future, or becomes more irritable and is overcome with new physical symptoms, it might be time to address their anxiety and why they are feeling this way.
Do Not Pressure Them to Achieve Perfection
While we want our children to succeed in what they do, we cannot expect perfection. Encourage them to always try their best. For example, if they want to maintain good grades, they need to study and do their homework; however, they do not always have to achieve perfect scores on everything they do.
Chasing perfection gets heavy and makes it difficult to chase balance. Encourage them to be well-rounded – invest in friendships, play sports or try out for the drama club, attend church as a family, and try their best in school. Encouraging well-rounded teenagers will be more fulfilling and allow them to experience more of what God has for them and their talents. They are not ONLY a student or ONLY an athlete.
Be There for Them
While it might seem obvious, it is important to make your presence and support known in their life. Show up for their talent shows, cheer at basketball games, and leave a sweet little note or snack in their car before their first day at their after-school job. Let them know every day that you are proud of them.
If you get angry and fuss at them the entire way home because they missed several three-pointers at every basketball game you attend, it might be the foundation of letting anxiety creep in because they feel they cannot please you. Celebrate all the small victories while helping them improve and grow. Negative feedback cannot be the only feedback.
Spend Time as a Family without Stressors
In an age of busyness, it is important to make time for and encourage fun. While it seems like an elementary reminder, sometimes we need to remove the distractions and enjoy life. Encourage them to have fun. Let them see you embracing your inner child from time to time.
Have a themed movie night at home complete with cute snacks. Get out in the yard and play basketball together. Take a day trip together and let them help you plan what adventures you would like to do. Take a trip to laser tag or play putt-putt. Try to learn a popular dance with them in the living room (and let them make fun of you). Try karaoke.
It is important to combat anxiety by trying to enjoy life and by soaking in new memories. Create a home where they feel safe and secure.
Pray for Them
When your teen is feeling overwhelmed with the pressures in their life, let them know you are there for them. Pray for them behind closed doors and ask if you can pray over them before they leave to take a test at school or leave to go audition for the drama club. Make prayer and Scripture a normal part of life.
Encourage Them to Keep a Journal
It can be very helpful for a teenager to process and make sense of their feelings when they take the time to pause and write them out. Encourage them to write all kinds of things in their journal. Write down their hopes and dreams. Write down what is triggering their feelings of anxiety.
It can be beneficial to them as it helps them process their thoughts and feelings. It is also helpful if they need to pursue additional resources for combating anxiety.
Getting Help for Teen Anxiety
If your teenager is dealing with deep-rooted anxiety and their feelings are intensifying or becoming debilitating in any way, then it is time to seek additional help. The counselors in our office want to help your teen process their feelings and offer tools that help. When your teen feels supported in handling their anxiety they can move forward and chase their dreams.
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