One cause of modern anxiety is the way the world has changed for young people. Their exposure to 24-hour news and to the countless available social media pathways leave many feeling they must be on perpetual alert. Generally time devoted to digital communication is subtracted from time and opportunities for deeper more meaningful and more challenging face-to-face to communication. And, putting social media influences aside, it is important to keep in mind that some anxiety is a part of life for young and old. Learning how to cope with it is an important part of growing up.
Parents have a deeply impactful role in teenage anxiety. There is a lot they can’t control but focusing on what they can influence can make a positive difference. Parents who model in real time a balanced life help their children learn to cope with their personal doubts and fears. Here are a few ways to help mitigate teenage angst:
1. There is not one right way to do something: When kids are young it can be easy to over idealize certain goals. In elementary school, you may talk about the importance of straight A’s and good colleges. The conversations are relaxed and easy going, because your children are not yet in the pressure cooker situation of having to actually obtain these ideals. But inadvertently these conversations communicate pressure that your offspring needs to be perfect to be successful in adulthood. By the time they enter middle school, some of these young people are deeply dismayed by the prospect of receiving anything less than an A. They can be able students but they make themselves sick with worry before tests. They may spend long evenings doing their homework with their parents watching over them to correct and double check their work. All of this sets some children up to be terrified should their grades not meet their expectations or for that matter if they fail at anything. These teens can’t imagine their lives without a very high level of academic achievement (delete straight A’s) or without acceptance at their top rated college. At some point something inevitably gives, they see they aren’t perfect and crippling anxiety sets in. Remind your teen that no matter what each grade is, if they keep persevering they will progress. And too, there is not one right college for each student. In fact there are many colleges in which they can be happy and achieve. Sometimes not getting into the best college can be the best thing because it brings relief from the pressure. This relief means the teen is free to perform without that dreaded fear of failure breathing down his/her back.
Too much emphasis on very high grades pushes some students to stop trying, “What is the point, I am never going to get close to being a straight A student.” The fact is history is full of examples of very successful adults who did not excel academically. Senator John McCain has been in the news often lately. He finished 894th out of 899 students in his graduating class at Annapolis. Yet, he became a fighter pilot, war hero, six-term U.S. Senator, and his party’s nominee for President of the United States. Whatever a student’s academic standing may be, the point is to keep trying. In the long run, lifting an F to a D, a D to a C or a C to a B may be the most important accomplishment of all.
2. Remind them of their ability to cope with hardship and uncertainty: When as parents we are anxious ourselves, it is all too easy to warn against danger. Anticipating things that won’t go right or where potential harm or bad grades may lurk serves to key your child up for anxiety over what might happen. Instead of focusing their attention on potential trouble spots that may or may not come down the road, emphasize their ability to cope with adversity. So instead of saying “Watch out for that teacher, she’s a tough grader” you might say “Even if your teacher is a tough grader, you will make it through” or “You will find a way to deal with that tough teacher” or offering support “Ugh you had to deal with that tough teacher again, take a break, watch your favorite TV show.” Remind them of times when they overcame obstacles.
3. Expose them to uncomfortable situations: Any time our children are distressed we become distressed. Just as it is hard to hear them crying as infants, their upset in the teenage years can be a sock in the parental gut. It is tempting to want to do anything possible to ease their situation. Unfortunately taking away the source of their distress only encourages them to avoid things that make them anxious. And avoidance begets more anxiety. The more they avoid things the more anxious they become at the thought of having to deal with those very things. When your child appears acutely distressed by going to school, tests, teachers, social events, sport events, don’t tell them they don’t have to do it. Instead become like a coach, encourage them and give them emotional support while they push themselves to go forth into uncomfortable situations. And reward them later, “You did it, you got through that class let’s cook your favorite dinner.”
4. Limit screen time: When teens have no limits around their phones and social media they essentially never get a chance to be off the gird. Of course, in their minds, they may believe they never want to be off the grid. Teens are being conditioned to believe that if they are not in constant contact or having some kind of 24-hour online presence then they are missing out. This keeps them in a perpetual hyper-vigilant state. And too, they have to contend with the online feedback they are or are not receiving (both good and bad). Give them a forced break from this. They are unlikely to take it for themselves. Take the phone away at a certain time every evening and put it in a place where they know they can’t access it. Tell them taking their phone away is not a punishment but a way to help them relax and take a break. Eventually they come to see that they aren’t going to miss out on much and that they get a better night’s sleep — something that puts all of us on a better footing to meet the next day’s challenges. For some, my book, Building Self-Esteem, will be helpful in offering insight in how a person of any age may move toward feeling better about themselves.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and author of Building Self-Esteem 5 Steps: How to Feel “Good Enough,” Getting Close to Others 5 Steps: How to Develop Intimate Relationships and Still Be True to Yourself, Toxic Love 5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, and Breaking Up and Divorce 5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone. For more, follow me on twitter @DrJillWeber, follow me on Facebook, or check out drjillweber.com.