5 Ways to Help Teens Manage Anxiety

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While in some places social distancing may be behind us, loneliness and social isolation are an ongoing reality for many teens. The teenage years are often a tumultuous time in the best of circumstances, and the stressors of growing up and fitting in have only been amplified by the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic[1]. While experiencing worries and fears is an unavoidable part of adolescence, research shows that anxiety and loneliness are linked[2], and that youth who experience high levels of anxiety are more likely to feel alone.

The flip side of this finding is that parents and educators can help teens feel more accepted and socially fulfilled by supporting them in coping with anxiety[3], such as through nurturing the following coping strategies:

1. Avoid avoiding. 

The “flight” component of the fight-flight-freeze response, avoidance[4] is an extremely common response to anxiety. Help teens avoid avoiding by supporting them to face their fears, rather than turn away from them. Talk non-judgmentally with teens about their fears and make a plan to confront them together[5], one baby step at a time.

2. Re-direct rumination.

Rumination means thinking negative thoughts on repeat[6]. It can also sneak into conversations in the guise of social support – such as through hyper-focusing on worries and seeking extensive feedback and reassurance. Help teens break out of circular conversations about their fears by setting limits[7] and re-directing[8]. Encourage teens to re-direct when they find themselves dwelling on their worries with friends, which can help them feel more in control of their anxiety.

3. Become a bouncer for your mind. 

No one wants to worry, but anxious thoughts can be hard to stop. Help teens learn how to identify anxious thoughts without identifying with them – thoughts are not facts, regardless of how overwhelming they may feel. Invite teens to visualize a screen door to their mind, which they can open to let worried thoughts in – or not. [9]

4. Think like your own best friend.

Encourage teens to talk to themselves as they would a best friend[10] – offering themselves support, compassion, and perspective when things feel hard. Positive self-talk may feel cheesy, but it is an effective way to challenge the negativity bias inherent to anxiety.

5. Be a fly on the wall.

When talking about a distressing event, invite teens to narrate the situation as if they were a fly on the wall – a neutral observer simply witnessing the scene. Encourage teens to focus on what actually happened, rather than their interpretation of why it happened and what it means. Doing so can help teens cultivate a more balanced and flexible perspective[11], which diffuses anxiety.

 

A 2019 systematic review found that anxiety was linked to emotional dysregulation in teens, and that adaptive coping strategies are ones that help teens regulate their emotions in the face of stress or fears. 

COVID’s effects on teen mental health and social well-being are described in “No child is an island: sociability in times of social distancing” (2020) from the Journal for European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 

Anxiety commonly emerges in adolescence, a time when healthy social connections are of vital importance to teen’s well-being. Parents and educators can help teens learn and practice adaptive strategies for coping with anxiety and feeling like they belong. 

Many anxious teens experience a vicious cycle of worry and loneliness that acts as a barrier to positive social relationships and self-esteem.

A 2018 systematic review found that anxious teens are less socially skilled and experience and higher levels of interpersonal problems, loneliness, and victimization than their more relaxed peers.

Teens who are socially anxious are over eight times as likely to be bullied and are less likely to be accepted by other teens. Anxious teens also tend to feel more alone than their non-anxious peers, and are less likely to feel satisfied with their relationships, communicate well, and feel positively about their friendships.

 

Teens with anxiety are more likely to skip school, avoid dating, pass on hanging out with friends, and miss out on parties and special events – which are all developmentally important experiences (and also just plain fun!). Check out this article from Hey Sigmund to learn more about helping children and teens with avoidance. 

Facing fears takes away their power! Over time, repeated exposure to anxiety-provoking things or situations can help desensitize teens’ nervous systems to them. 

One way to make a plan for facing fears is through building a fear ladder

E.g. looping through the same worries over and over again, or overanalyzing upcoming or past events.

Schedule a regular time when you will talk with them about their fears, and when that time is up, it’s time to move on.

Redirect by changing the conversation topic, encouraging physical movement to shake up stuck thoughts, or doing something together that absorbs the senses such as listening to music, cooking a meal, or spending time outside.

Tell them that calm and neutral thoughts can drift freely through the mesh of the screen, but worried thoughts are so blown up with anxiety they can’t fit through the mesh at all! This means that teens have a choice – they can consciously open the door and let worried thoughts in, or they can let them sit outside on the front porch for a while, and maybe at some point they might just float away. Help teens practice delaying letting anxious thoughts in – for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or even an entire day. Encourage them to schedule “worry time” when they will think about their concerns, but when the time is up – the screen door slams shut!

Learning how to be one’s own best friend takes time – challenge teens to start with one positive self-thought per day, and build from there.

People with anxiety see the world differently, especially when it comes to identifying threats – those with anxiety are more likely to perceive danger where none exists. This difference in perception is due to how the anxious brain learns from and remembers emotional experiences, which is outside of conscious control.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.