I was approached recently by parents who were worried about their daughter’s anxiety level. She’s a 5th grader playing soccer with the junior high team, and even though she loves it (and the girls are nice to her), she’s in tears before every practice. Parents and teachers alike are finding themselves faced with anxious teens. Anxiety not only makes its sufferers miserable, it also affects their performance, attendance, and self
While some teens with anxiety need to be seen professionally, there are things all parents can do when faced with an anxious teen:
- Alert the teacher. It’s helpful to know so I can provide a little more assurance and be on the alert for stressors. Sometimes a reassuring hand on the shoulder or a comment like, “Let me know if you need some down time” from the teacher will make it possible to get through the day.
- Validate their feelings. Don’t say “There’s nothing to worry about” or “We go through this every day.” Say “You’re worrying again, aren’t you?” or “It’s your old friend Anxiety creeping up on you again.”
- Encouraging deep breathing. Try triangle (inhale-hold-exhale) or square (inhale-hold-exhale-hold) breathing. Doing it together helps you both relax.
- Keep moving. Even if he’s crying, gather up his things and keep nudging him toward the car. Talk about your day ahead to give him something else to focus on besides his feelings.
- Know your limitations. Don’t feel like you have to eliminate her anxiety, because chances are you can’t do so anyway. Trying to get her to stop being fearful only keeps the focus on her worries and might frustrate both of you.
- Create a metaphor. Anxiety can be seen as a curtain that has to be pushed through, or a fuzzy monkey that just keeps hanging on. Or it can be the baseball that gets stuck in your stomach. Some teens can find ways to deal with anxiety with a helpful visualization.
- Focus their thoughts beyond the next few minutes. Help them to find something to look forward to by reminding them of what’s on the schedule: “You have art this afternoon, right?”
- Find a balance. Avoid getting sucked in and making it worse–“Oh, you poor thing; you should stay home today”– or issuing ultimatums–“Either stop crying and get to school or I’m pulling you out of everything!” You need to be the calm anchor in this storm.
- Speak calm and encouraging words. “You can do this.” “I’m right here with you.” “Your teacher understands what you’re going through.”
- Pray together. Or if not together, let your teen hear you praying for peace and courage to face what’s ahead.
I suggested that the parents of the 5th grader keep their reactions low-key, saying something like, “Oh, there are those soccer tears again. Need a Kleenex to use on your way to practice?” They can validate her anxiety that way but also help her see that it need not keep her from doing what she loves.
Sometimes anxious parents need reassurance, too.