Anxious Adolescence: Teaching Teens to Manage Stress and Anxiety

We all experience various levels of stress throughout our lives, but as we know, the adolescent years can be especially charged with anxiety as teens learn to deal with uncertainty, change and forming their identities. Their lives are full of new challenges and opportunities and these transitions can be stressful, especially around body image, performance, and peer acceptance. The pandemic over the past couple of years has added a whole other layer of complexity to this process.

Anxiety is a natural emotion, and it can be a positive force when it encourages preparation, motivation, and impulse control. Our body and mind have evolved to respond to stress, however, too much stress for a prolonged period can lead to anxiety disorders disrupting everyday life and relationships. Teaching your teenagers to use stress management strategies can help to prevent an excessive, unhealthy response when dealing with overwhelming feelings during stressful periods and situations.

Listen and Empathize

Mindfully listen to your teens, acknowledge and validate their emotions, empathize, normalize and help them feel understood by showing them that you take their thoughts and feelings seriously. Teens can take a long time to approach parents with issues causing stress and anxiety, so if and when they do, let them talk. Avoid being overly reactive and be prepared to listen as they work through their thoughts and feelings with you.

Trace and Track Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety is the body's reaction to stress, interpreted by the mind/body as a threat. Symptoms of anxiety can include excessive fears and worries, irritability, restlessness, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, and panic attacks. Teenagers can also be showing signs of stress if they're overly conforming, constantly procrastinating, and struggling with perfectionism by redoing tasks over and over.

If possible, try to trace your child's stress to specific events, situations, and experiences so that you can help them to create effective problem-solving strategies relating to that specific circumstance. It’s helpful to tackle one issue at a time, kind of like a divide and conquer kind of approach. Certain challenges can seem so very overwhelming, so teach them to think through options for dealing with a problem by breaking it down into small, manageable steps. Anxious kids/teens/youth often avoid new experiences, so remind them that they were successful when trying other new things in the past. Their brains need those reminders. Help them approach rather than avoid their anxieties and fears in a step-by-step fashion. Begin with a low level of exposure to their stressors, praising them and providing positive reinforcement when they perform anxiety-inducing tasks and activities.

Dealing With Catastrophic Thinking

Teenagers often struggle with catastrophic thinking, where their negative, fearful thoughts spiral into the worst possible conclusions out of proportion to the reality of the situation. Help them work through this by identifying the worst possible outcome, then the best outcome, guiding them towards a more reasonable/likely, middle ground conclusion. This enables them to reframe their exaggerated thoughts into more likely outcomes.

Catastrophizing can lead to behaviours that affect real-life situations. For example, a student can catastrophize before an important test, imagining failure. These negative thoughts can lead to the student blanking or lacking concentration, which then causes a poor result. Encourage teens to step back and question their thoughts objectively, evaluating the full evidence around them in their specific situation to shift their thoughts to a more likely outcome. Relaxation and mindfulness techniques like yoga, calming visualizations, and breathing exercises are excellent tools to calm the nervous system's flight-fight-freeze response, to allow for awareness, mindfulness, and reframing of negative thoughts.

Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle

Help your teen to manage everyday anxiety by prioritizing a healthy lifestyle. It's important to ensure that they're not overscheduling themselves, as this often leads to burnout. Teach them how to structure their days to include enough sleep, exercise, and relaxation. A lack of sleep can lead to an inability to learn, concentrate, and use problem-solving strategies, so encourage your teenager to manage their electronics at night to avoid melatonin suppression from the artificial light of screens. A healthy diet can also help to combat stress and fatigue. Caffeine is a psychostimulant, so substantial amounts, like those found in energy drinks, should be limited as they can worsen the symptoms of anxiety. Encourage as much physical activity as possible.

Seeking Help

Helping your teen to deal with everyday stress and anxiety will teach them to build their resilience and to deal with challenges effectively. However, if you're concerned that your teenager has been struggling with significant and/or intense anxiety for prolonged periods or that they're unable to enjoy their daily life, seek professional help from a licensed mental health practitioner. Our team can help you out in that respect as well.

The teen years can be an emotional rollercoaster as adolescents grow into young adulthood. Help to ease their transition by guiding your teenagers to identify stressors, problem-solve, and to structure a healthy lifestyle, providing a solid foundation for stress management throughout their adult lives.