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10 Tips to Support Your Anxious Teen

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1) Some teens are just physiologically wired to experience anxiety more than others.  For an anxious teen, the goal is to help your teen manage their anxiety, not completely eliminate it.  Helping your teen to learn how to cope and tolerate their anxiety is the best thing a parent can do. It is hard to see your child suffer, but parents cannot always remove the stressors that trigger the anxiety.

2) Express positive, and realistic expectations. As a parent, you cannot promise that fears won’t come true… but you CAN express confidence in your teen, that they will be okay, and that they will be able to manage their stress.  By facing their fears and learning how to cope with their anxiety, their overall anxiety level will gradually decrease.

3) Do not avoid things just because it will make your child or teen anxious. Aiding your teen in avoiding fearful events is a short-term solution to make them feel better. Avoidance ultimately reinforces the anxiety.  To avoid the cycle of experiencing anxiety and avoiding the stimulus, teens ultimately need to learn stress reduction and distress tolerance. You can respect your teen’s limits, but challenge them, from time-to-time to face their fears… so they can practice in a controlled, safe environment.

4) Respect your teen’s feelings, but don’t empower the feelings that are causing them to isolate or avoid. Validation does not always mean agreement.  If a teen is extremely anxious about starting a new activity, you don’t want to belittle their fears, but also don’t want to amplify the fears. As a parent, you can listen, be empathetic, help your teen to better understand what they are anxious about… and encourage them to face their fears.

5) Don’t ask leading questions… “Are you anxious about the big test?” “Are you worried about being asked to prom?” To avoid feeding their anxiety, ask open-ended questions like “How are you feeling about the test?”… “How are you feeling about the prom?”

6) Normalize anxiety. Since anxiety is a part of life, encourage your teen to tolerate their anxiety. Acknowledge how difficult it can be to deal with anxiety, and admire their effort in overcoming the discomfort. Let your teen know that the anxiety is likely to decrease, over time, as they become accustomed to the situation that is causing them to worry.

7) Highlight small progress, not just the elimination of the discomfort…“I am impressed that you took that course, in spite of your fear of failing.”

8) Try to keep the anticipatory period short. When we have a fear, the most uncomfortable time is right before we confront it. Try to eliminate or reduce the anticipation period. For example, if the fear is going to soccer tryouts, avoid launching into a discussion about it two hours before. Maybe even try to help distract your child during the time right before an event that routinely causes them anxiety.

9) Help your teen to think it through, and challenge their fear-based thought.  Try talking the fear through… “What would happen if that fear came true?”… “How could you handle it?” If your teen’s fear is failing a test, talk about it. If they happen to fail, what are their options? Can they go talk to the teacher, or get extra-help? Maybe there is an opportunity for extra credit that can raise their grade.

10) What to do… should their fear come true. Think of it as an anxiety-reduction math equation… Information plus action = reduction in negative feeling. Explore the possibilities, consider options, and even make a plan for the worst case scenario. Knowing that there is a plan of action, or an ability to use critical thinking about a frightening situation can reduce the uncertainty in a healthy, concrete way.

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