Supporting Anxious Teenagers
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
I wrote this article for a Brighton Church but thought it would be good to post it here too.
I hope it is helpful.
I would guess that everyone has experienced some level of anxiety over the last 3 months and those that struggle in this way generally, will be feeling the pressure intensely.
Lucinda Bassett, author of From Panic to Power suggests that if you experience more than average amount of anxiety, you “are full of potential greatness... probably have above average intelligence. You are highly creative with a fabulous imagination. You are detail oriented and analytical... They over-intellectualise, overanalyse, and use their creativity to imagine the worst possible scenarios.”(p 3)
Everyone experiences anxiety, fears and worries (where we expect that something ‘bad’ is going to happen). Our bodies respond to anxiety in particular ways. At the moment, because we are in the middle of a global health crisis, our everyday fears and worries now have an extra, heavy, layer of fear.
When we are experiencing anxious thoughts, we can’t seem to be able to focus on anything else, except the potential danger and how to avoid it. This thinking becomes very rigid.
When we look at the reason our clever brains react in this way it is helpful to think about ‘how do we need to think if we REALLY are in danger?’ For example, if we fell into a lion’s den at the zoo. Your plan for escape needs to be the priority in your brain and your thinking needs to be rigid and not distracted by thoughts about what you may be having for dinner that night. I find that understanding why our brains work in a certain way is helpful.
We have an important part of the brain, forming part of the limbic system (our emotional – feeling brain) called the amygdala. Its purpose is to detect threats and initiate a response, among other functions. The difficulty created by this very important part of our defence system, is that the amygdala is very sensitive and is triggered by anything that reminds it of a time where we may have been threatened in some way, and it triggers a response even when there is no present danger. Our memories store feelings, smells, sounds and these are especially strong when attached to a frightening or worrying event.
When these memories are triggered, our brain responds with the same defence response that we may need if we were in mortal danger. These can be summed up in three types of response: physical response - Our heart starts pumping fast getting oxygen out to our legs ready to run away really fast, our digestive system stops working (a less important job when in danger) and we may experience stomach aches or upset stomach, anxious thinking - our thoughts start racing as we plan our escape and anxious behaviour - our bodies are primed and ready to run, hide or fight. This is often described as the fight, flight or freeze response.
“The amygdala’s job is to quickly process and express emotions, especially anger and fear. This little mass of gray matter is the watchdog of the brain, remaining always alert for times we might be threatened. When it does sense danger, it can completely take over, or hijack , the upstairs (thinking) brain.” Seigel and Bryson
This part of the brain is designed to protect us. And we experience this protection as anxiety! These are such helpful responses when we are actually in danger, the problem comes when the reactions continue when the actual danger has passed, or never happened.
“..anxiety has no prejudices, it attacks everyone. It’s a thief. It robs us of our present happiness by filling us with anticipatory worry. It makes us feel insecure and questions our abilities. It makes us physically sick.” Lucinda Bassett – From Panic to Power.
What can we do?
How can we regulate anxiety?
Help for Parents – expressing empathy and unconditional acceptance is a brilliant foundation for supporting your anxious son or daughter. That sounds very simple but is not at all easy in practice. Anxiety is often masked by other emotions or behaviour, which have been triggered by the anxiety response. Loving an anxious teenager may look like loving an angry teenager. Anger can be triggered by the ‘fight’ response and can end up pushing our own buttons, where we end up on the defensive. Our amygdala is in turn triggered and we ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’. Maybe you can recognise this in your interactions with your anxious teenager. Being aware of our own triggers is really helpful. If we can recognise that we are being triggered then we can assume that our thinking at this time will not be brilliant and we are likely to say or do something that we either don’t mean, or that we will regret saying or doing later.
We all have triggers, you may trigger and react strongly when you feel afraid, or out of control, or when you feel cornered, or laughed at. These are all caused by stored up memories in our own emotional brain that get triggered when we experience those feelings again in a new or similar way. Our own bodies go on the defensive and we can end up face to face with our teenager with matching raised emotions.
When you are able to recognise your own ‘triggers’ this can help you to have compassion towards yourself as you validate your own feelings. For example, saying to yourself,
“It is no wonder that I am feeling so scared, I really want my son to be happy and it makes me feel so sad and worried when I see him like this, I can understand why I am feeling powerless and angry in this situation. This situation is so difficult, and it is ok for me to have strong feelings. What do I need to do to help me calm down so I can help my son?”
As you do this, and as you take care of yourself by giving yourself some time and space to calm down and regulate your own emotions ( eg take 10 deep long breaths, have a glass of water, wash your face, jump up and down, shout in a pillow!!) you will now be able to help your teenager to regulate. Whilst you are in reacting mode you will be contributing to the anxiety and fear experienced by your teenager. Recognising this pattern is vital to breaking toxic behaviour patterns.
When you are feeling calm and regulated, now you can show empathy and compassion towards your teenager. Start by validating their feelings by reflecting and accepting their emotions. You could say
“ I can see that you so upset by what just happened, you seem very angry and I am wondering if you are worried about what will happen next…..”
This reflects back to your teenager the emotions that you can see, which will help them to work out what is going on for them. They will soon correct you if you get it wrong!
Sometimes we want to rescue our children and prevent them from experiencing any negative emotions, but it is vital to allow them to learn that emotions come and go. They are not our enemies, they have been designed to help protect us and we can work with them, not against them. We don’t need to fight them, we need to find ways to safely express them.
Making time to connect with your teenager, and to really listen to them. Not jumping to your own conclusions, not trying to solve every problem, but listening and loving them will help your son or daughter to feel heard, understood and loved. You can ask them what they need from you. Find time to have fun together. Look at old photos and videos, play silly games.
Help for Young people –
It is scary to feel anxious. It can make us feel out of control and we desperately want to get back control. It can make us feel hopeless and can negatively affect the way we see ourselves, damaging our self-esteem and self-image. The first thing for you to hear is that you are not weak or broken, and you can hope to feel better, you can feel better.
I suffered with anxiety as teenager and I remember praying and asking God for help. I didn’t understand why He didn’t answer my prayers and take my anxiety away. I hated the ‘out of control’ responses that would happen in my body and these in turn would hike up the anxiety and lead to a panic attack. It wasn’t until I was an adult and heard someone ask the question as to whether we are making ‘fear’ or ‘love’ our partner in the way we live. Was I partnering with the truth or with lies. I thought about this for a long time and realised that I believed so many lies and fears and spent my life worrying about them. I made a decision that day that I wanted to choose to break friends with fear and make friends with hope. And it made a massive difference. My choice, my decision, my thoughts. I still have to work at it, and I use some of the advice below to help regulate my own anxiety. But I don’t feel powerless anymore.
Let’s take each of our responses and see what we can do to help.
Anxious thinking –
You don’t need to get ‘on’ every train of thought that passes through your mind. You can challenge thoughts, look for evidence of the likelihood of ‘worries’ happening in real life, what would happen if they did.
As a parent you can use problem solving skills to establish the possibility of an actual threat. As a therapist, I find that some anxious clients are scared to look at their anxious thoughts, believing that they are too scary to look at. But there is a great phrase ‘name it to tame it’, which summarises the truth that as we validate emotions rather than running from them or hiding from them, we actually begin to ‘tame’ them.
Dr Dan Seigel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson explain this well in their book “The Whole Brain Child” (which I highly recommend parents read),
“ What kids often need, especially when they experience strong emotions, is to have someone help them use their brain to make sense of what’s going on – to put things in order to name these big and scary right-brain feelings so they can deal with them effectively. This is what storytelling does: it allows us to understand ourselves and our world by using both our left and right hemispheres together. To tell a story that makes sense, the left brain must put things in order, using words and logic. The right brain contributes the bodily sensations, raw emotions and personal memories, so we can see the whole picture and communicate our experience. This is the scientific explanation behind why journaling and talking about a difficult even can be so powerful in helping us heal. In fact, research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere.” (page 29)
Brené Brown describe this as ‘rumbling with our stories’, where we are curious about how we are experiencing life and we own our stories.
What to think about - Focus on what you can control- think about stable things that remain the same (house, garden, TV, furniture).
Get your brain busy with thinking about something else that uses different parts of your thinking brain – imagine you are in a supermarket and visualise yourself walking down the aisle filling the trolley with objects that start with each letter of the alphabet starting at A and finishing at Z.
Linda Bassett proposes that:
“Your anxiety is under your control. You created the negative thoughts, therefore, you can stop them”.
This puts us in a powerful position. Not actually at the whim of anxious thoughts, but powerful to confront and stop them and taking back control.
Physical responses –
Learn to breath on purpose and with purpose.
When our adrenaline response has kicked in and we can feel our breathing get quicker, our hearts racing, butterflies start fluttering in our stomach, our neck and jaw may tighten up and our muscles may become tense, we know that we in the midst of a defence against imminent danger reaction. But if we take control over one of these, our breathing, we can halt the effects of the rest. We begin to slow down our breathing by taking in a deep long breath through our nose and then blowing out that breath slowly through our mouth and repeating this until we begin to feel calm and grounded.
Our brain picks up the information that our breathing has slowed down and realises that we cannot be in imminent danger if we are breathing so slowly and so it sends out a message to the rest of our body “false alarm…as you were, get back to normal”. Learning to breath on purpose and with purpose is another way to confront anxiety and take back control. We don’t need to block and deny anxiety, we need to let it pass through us quickly and let it go. Denying emotions does not help, expressing them does.
Grounding exercises, prayerful meditation and prayerful mindfulness are really helpful in this process. Journaling is also really helpful as this allows us to own our story and process it as we express it in words.
Anxious behaviour –
Face our fears. Avoidant behaviour is a common response to anxiety. Anxiety feels horrible, so it feels like it makes sense to avoid situations that may make you feel anxious. But this actually leads you into a very small, closed down way of living, where you end up shutting life out, in case it makes you anxious. So how do we deal with these avoidant behaviours. Firstly, we notice them. And secondly, we confront them by gently exposing ourselves to situations and experiencing that we can tolerate anxiety and survive. Brushing under the carpet eventually leads to a big build-up of dust.
To take back control of anxious behaviour we need to be willing to have a go at facing our fears. This starts with acceptance. “I feel anxious…that’s ok. Anxiety is a normal response, I can do this. I can face this fear and survive.”
Start by thinking of the ways that you try to avoid experiencing anxiety and make a plan, together with a parent or supporter, as to how you will face the situations or fears that you are avoiding. Be kind and compassionate with yourself and take things slowly with other people supporting you. Talk to someone about your worries. They look very different in the light of someone else’s perspective.
Limit news intake and time spent on social media
Be honest with someone about how you are feeling
Practice an attitude of gratitude
Take time to take care of yourself
Be kind to yourself and those around you
Get outside for fresh air when possible (and allowed!)
Play and have fun!
Switch off your phone an hour before bed and try to be in bed at a reasonable time
Limit social media (eg have 1 day off each week)
Set an alarm and get up when it goes off
Set yourself targets for getting jobs done – tick them off when done
Neuro-science approved tips for how to help calm the nervous system:
Quick Stress Calmers - Thanks to Suzi Lambert for these.
- Breath in and out as you trace around your hand with your finger, up breath in, down breath out
- Count slowly to 10 and then backwards from 10-0
- Breath in and out and as you let out your long breath, roar like a dinosaur or sing a long note
- Suck some iced water from a frozen water bottle or through a straw
- Chew some minty gum
- Tense shoulders up to your ears, tense and release , tense and release
- 10 Star Jumps
- 5 Wall pushes - legs into a deep lunge, hands flat on the wall and PUSH !
- Press your hands together really hard
- 3 chair push-ups
- Place a pencil in between your teeth and do a wide SMILE
- Eat something crunchy (carrots, celery crisps) or chewy (caramel bar) as you chew, focus on the smells, textures and tastes.
Parents- look after yourself and take note of your own anxieties and get support when you need it. Think of the analogy of a parent on an aircraft needing to put their own oxygen mask on before helping their child with theirs. Your self-care is important for your own sake but also for your children.
If you are concerned about your child's emotional or mental health, speak to your GP, they are well placed to help. Many GP's are now doing telephone consultation so do give them a call if needed.
Dan Siegel’s amazing hand brain model - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw
E-motion are continuing to offer free counselling for East Sussex young people. www.e-motion.org.uk
Thanks to Suzi Lambert, Child and Adolescent Intergrative Arts Therapist (BAPT accredited)
Bassett, Linda (1995) From Panic to Power, William Morrow, New York
Creswell, Cathy and Willetts, Lucy (2010) Overcoming Your Child's Fears and Worries, Robinson, London
Siegel, Dr Daniel J, and Bryson, Dr Tina Payne (2011), The Whole-Brain Child, Robinson, London