If you’re a parent struggling to raise a child with anxiety, you’re not alone. Teen and adolescent anxiety has been on the rise for years, and many parents are unsure how to cope with this dynamic. Approximately 4.4 million children in the U.S. are currently diagnosed with anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And, anxiety is contagious. “Children’s anxiety often results in an increase of parental anxiety because of the uncertainty of what to do,” says Embark’s Chief Clinical Officer, Rob Gent, M.A., LPC.
Anxiety is a combination of fear and uncertainty.
This combination can quickly turn into a perpetuating cycle. “The uncertainty increases the fear, and as the fear increases, the anxiety increases. It’s a snowball that can turn into panic disorders and more,” says Gent.
But once you understand the ingredients of anxiety, you also gain the power to empathize, which can help mitigate this cycle. What is driving your child’s fear? For example, it could be a fear of failure, rejection, acceptance, or being alone.
Use Empathy to Mitigate Fear
Connection is a powerful way to mitigate fear, and you build connection through empathy.
“Anxiety is incredibly lonely and seeks loneliness,” says Gent. “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.”
To do this, Gent has a mantra: Empathize before you strategize.
“This helps alleviate emotional vigilance and calm that system, because your child knows someone is listening to them and is accepting of the emotions behind the words, not necessarily agreeing with the word, and is holding their fear and uncertainty with them.”
Another way to build connection is to help your teen work on their sense of self. “As a parent, we do this by reinforcing their ability to develop an identity and have resilience, adaptability, flexibility, and creativity. 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,” says Gent.
Use Reliability to Tackle Uncertainty
Now we know fear and uncertainty drive anxiety and that empathy and connection reduce fear. How do we address the other half of the equation and reduce uncertainty?
The key is to do things that are reliable and predictable, along with having solid boundaries and limits.
This could mean you have reliable schedules and predictable routines. It could also mean that you reliably show up for your teen when they need someone to listen, without judgment, to what’s going on in their lives. Or, perhaps you have set boundaries about when screens should be off, or when it’s time for family connection. Kids thrive under structure.
“We need to have experiences of safety, security, scheduling, and reliability,” says Gent.
Why Can’t We Just Talk it Out?
When stress arises, it’s often our first instinct to talk through it and try 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,” says Gent. “We will 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.”
Instead, focus on empathy and connection. Simple breathing techniques can be very powerful for your child (and you) when anxiety arises. “The best way to calm the nervous system is through the use of diaphragm and breathing,” says Gent. And, by helping to bring your own stress levels down, you can provide a stable base for your child.
This ability to manage your emotions together is part of co-regulation, the reciprocal exchange of emotional, neurological, and physical safety. Co-regulation occurs after repetitive experiences of commitment, acceptance, security, and attunement are reliably created. This dynamic promotes healing and a healthy relationship.
When Should I Talk to a Doctor About My Child’s Anxiety?
“The threshold is when the anxiety starts to interfere with daily living. That’s when you need to look at it and get some intervention,” says Gent. These interferences might include extreme isolation, plummeting motivation, or hypervigilant behaviors. Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling nervous, restless or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
This intervention could come in the form of a general practitioner, a therapist, and/or a psychiatrist (who can potentially prescribe medication). But remember: “Medication for anxiety is a way to put the top on it, but it doesn’t necessarily get at the source of the issue,” says Gent. “The goal is to titrate and get off the medication. Medication isn’t meant to be sustained, especially for anxiety, forever.”
Instead, Gent recommends that we look at relational, interpersonal interventions first. “If there’s more happening that feels out of control, then medication might be needed. But, the relationship is the most effective and efficient means for creating healthy development and holistic neurobiological regulation.”
If you’re looking for help dealing with your child’s anxiety, remember that you’re not alone. And if you need to talk with a professional, we’re always here to help.