If you’re wondering how to help a teenager with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, you’re not alone. Many parents are unsure how to support a son or daughter who has teen anxiety, which is a serious issue. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of National Survey of Children’s Health data from 2016-2019, about 9% of children and adolescents ages 3-17 have received a diagnosis of anxiety problems.
To explore dealing with teenage anxiety, we spoke with Embark Behavioral Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Rob Gent, who has a doctorate in psychology.
Table of contents
- Teenage Anxiety
- 5 Ways To Help Teenagers With Anxiety
- When Should I Talk To a Doctor About My Teen’s Anxiety?
Anxiety is a combination of fear and uncertainty. This combination can quickly turn into a perpetuating cycle, which can be challenging when you’re trying to figure out how to help your teen with anxiety.
“The uncertainty increases the fear, and as the fear increases, the anxiety increases,” Gent said. “It’s a snowball that can turn into panic disorders and more.”
Once you better understand this condition, you gain the power to empathize, which can help your son or daughter when they’re dealing with teenage anxiety. What’s driving how they’re feeling? For example, it could be a fear of failure, rejection, or being alone.
5 Ways To Help Teenagers With Anxiety
Here are five ways you can help your teen.
1. Use empathy to mitigate anxiety
When it comes to how to help a teenager with anxiety, empathy is a powerful tool.
“Anxiety is incredibly lonely and seeks loneliness,” Gent said. “We want to trick that and fool the system by empathizing and sharing in the loneliness of anxiety. This can change the meaning of how the body and the brain perceive anxiety. If we can share it, we can actually change it.”
As Gent put it: Empathize before you strategize.
Here are a few ways you can show empathy while dealing with teenage anxiety:
- Without judgment or trying to fix anything, imagine what it must be like emotionally and physically for them while experiencing their life.
- Say to your teen, “I’ve been thinking about what it must be like to be you, and it feels … ”
- Imagine what your teen must be feeling and what would benefit them nonverbally. Anxiety is about worry for the future, and providing a hug or just sitting right next to them without saying anything is a tremendous act of empathy.
- Acknowledge your teen’s feelings.
- Express compassion for the anxiety they’re experiencing.
- Offer your teen support (e.g., reassure them you’re always there if they want to talk).
“Empathizing helps alleviate emotional vigilance and calm that system, because your teen knows someone is listening to them and is accepting of the emotions behind the words, not necessarily agreeing with the words, and is holding their fear and uncertainty with them,” Gent said.
2. Focus on connection when talking to your anxious teenager
When anxiety arises, it’s often our first instinct to help our teenagers by talking them through it and trying to explain it away. But this never works.
“First of all, we need to really remember what’s happening to our rational, thinking brains when we’re triggered by anxiety,” Gent said. “We’ll try and talk someone out of their anxiety, which is what I would call a complete misattunement. That actually makes it worse. We don’t talk people out of emotional experiences of fear and certainty.”
What’s the right approach for how to talk to a teenager with anxiety? Focus on connection. Be fully present when you’re together. Actively listen, without judgment, to any anxiety your son or daughter has about what’s going on in their lives. Reflect what they say back to them to ensure you understand how they’re feeling.
Connecting with your teen this way is important, as it’s part of co-regulation, a reciprocal exchange of emotional, neurological, and physical safety that can help your son or daughter cope with anxiety.
3. Use breathing skills to help your teen deal with anxiety
Simple breathing techniques can be powerful coping skills for how to help your teen with anxiety — and they can help you too. By bringing your own stress levels down, you can provide a stable base for your child.
“The best way to calm the nervous system is through the use of your diaphragm and breathing,” Gent said.
To help your son or daughter who’s dealing with teenage anxiety, and calm yourself too, you could try box breathing together. Inhale deeply for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and exhale for a count of four. This rhythmic breathing can help your teen develop a skill that will help them focus on the present moment and regulate their emotions.
4. Help your teen build their sense of self
Another tip for how to help your teen with anxiety is supporting them in building a sense of self.
“As a parent, we do this by reinforcing their ability to develop an identity and have resilience, adaptability, flexibility, and creativity,” Gent said. “All of that generates from this positive sense of self, and we as parents can use co-regulation to be able to connect with them.”
To help your teen build their sense of self, you can:
- Schedule time to be with just them and give them your undivided attention.
- Provide empathy through words and actions.
- Tell them what you appreciate about them.
- Teach them positive self-talk — and model it yourself.
- Encourage them to use self-compassion.
- Provide positive reinforcement.
5. Use reliability to tackle anxiety
Given fear and uncertainty drive anxiety, and empathy and connection reduce fear, how do we address the other half of the equation? How do we reduce uncertainty?
The key is to be reliable and predictable, along with having solid boundaries and limits.
“It might sound counterintuitive, but good boundaries and limits provide a ton of certainty for teens,” Gent said.
This could mean you have reliable schedules and predictable routines. Or, perhaps you set boundaries about when screens should be off or when it’s time for family connection. Teenagers thrive under structure, and providing these predictable routines and structures can help when your son or daughter is dealing with teenage anxiety.
“We need to have experiences of safety, security, scheduling, and reliability,” Gent said.
When Should I Talk To a Doctor About My Teen’s Anxiety?
When should you reach out for professional help for your teen?
“The threshold is when the anxiety starts to interfere with daily living,” Gent said. “That’s when you need to contact a mental health professional.”
Interferences with daily living can include extreme isolation, plummeting motivation, or hypervigilant behaviors.
Common anxiety signs and symptoms in teenagers include:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense.
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom.
- Struggling with perfectionism or showing other signs of high-functioning anxiety.
- Struggling to concentrate or think about anything other than the present worry.
- Having difficulty sleeping.
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety.
- Struggling with separation issues.
To help your teen, you can connect them with a general practitioner, a therapist, and/or a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication, if it’s needed. However, Gent cautioned that medication doesn’t necessarily get at the source of the issue and recommended looking at your son or daughter’s relational and interpersonal dynamics first. That step is key when it comes to how to help a teenager with anxiety.
“If symptoms appear to be uncontrollable, then medication might be needed,” Gent said.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today.