With school being back in session, many teens are experiencing the usual academic and social stressors of the school year. Parents may notice a spike in their teen’s anxiety and moodiness. For many teens, anxiety might be a regular occurrence, but other times it might become more intense. Many parents might ask ‘what is anxiety, and how do I help my teen navigate it?’
What is Anxiety
The first thing to note is that anxiety isn’t inherently bad. It is a natural response that tells us that something in our environment makes us feel uneasy, and is a cue that drives us to action to respond to (i.e., prevent or avoid) a threat. Lisa Damour, the author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers notes that “mental health is not about feeling good. Instead, it’s about having the right feelings at the right time and being able to manage those feelings effectively.” This distinction of having feelings that make sense, while also effectively responding to them, helps distinguish between the two types of anxiety: healthy and unhealthy, aka primary and secondary anxiety.
Healthy (“Primary”) Anxiety
Discomfort, stress, and even anxiety are natural parts of life. If they haven’t studied for a test, your teen’s anxiety will motivate them to review the materials. If a teen is around someone that they feel unsafe with, they will start to feel anxious and that will motivate them to get out of that situation. If a teen feels anxious about driving with someone else who they know isn’t a safe driver, or who they know is inebriated, it will motivate them to not get into the car. These would be considered “healthy” anxiety, or a “primary” anxiety that is a reasonable response to a threatening situation. This anxiety might even help them to make decisions that will keep themselves safe and invest in their future.
Unhealthy (“Secondary”) Anxiety
However, when a teen starts experiencing anxiety that feels uncontrollable, or is at such a high intensity that it starts to impair good decision making, anxiety becomes problematic. Anxiety can lead to avoidant behaviors that lead them to avoid the opportunity to engage in good problem solving skills and healthy coping strategies that help dial back the intensity of emotional distress. Anxiety can also lead to teens to stop themselves from activities they might otherwise enjoy, such as social gatherings, going to a school dance, trying out for a sports team or theater group, or starting on an important essay. Sometimes secondary anxiety functions to protect us from feelings of helplessness and out of control by focusing our attention on things we can do to avoid the perceived threat. Without a doubt, COVID exacerbated avoidance and anxiety prone behaviors because many teens had to isolate themselves and spent a lot of time in the confines of their home.
How Do I Support My Anxious Teen?
One of the best ways that parents can help support their anxious teenagers is to become someone to talk to. Above all else, teens want someone to listen to what they are feeling and to validate their experience. Even if you can’t take away their anxiety, having someone to talk to will make the burden feel less heavy. In fact, validating their experiences and recognizing how awful they are feeling is more effective than trying to offer solutions.
Here are some validating responses that you can tell your teen:
- I know how difficult that is, I remember feeling like that when I was your age. Being in high school is so hard.
- I know I can’t change how you are feeling, but I’m just so glad that you told me. I want you to feel like you can always share things with me.
- It makes sense that you are feeling anxious about that. I think anyone in your position would, and it clearly is something that is really important to you.
- I know that you are smart, kind, and strong enough to handle this, but it doesn’t make it any less scary. It’s okay to feel nervous about this.
- I hear you.
Getting teens to talk about their mental health can have its own challenges. Every person expresses their emotions differently, and teens are undergoing a lot of changes and emotions. Even an otherwise emotionally healthy and expressive teen might not want to talk about it all the time, and that’s okay. What’s most important is that they know talking to you is an option, and that you won’t judge them for whatever they are feeling. You can also encourage them to try other types of expression, such as journaling, music, or exercise.
Letting teenagers feel like they are capable of finding their own solutions is also important, and builds a sense of mastery and agency, which can help make secondary anxiety unnecessary. But that doesn’t mean you are making them do it alone. You can encourage them, listen to what they are feeling, and offer input if asked. You can think of yourself as a “coach”: you can’t run the race for them, but you can encourage them from the sidelines and help train them to do the best that they can.
If you want to learn more about specific tips for recognizing signs of anxiety, getting your teenager comfortable with talking to you, setting reasonable rules, school-related anxieties, social anxieties and academic anxieties, you can read this New York Times article.
Seeking professional help for your teen’s anxiety is another option for helping them build mastery, skills and agency overcome it. At the Youth and Family Institute, we offer individual therapy and skills coaching to help teens work through their anxiety. We also offer parent coaching to help you respond to your child’s anxiety and emotional ups and downs.
“Raising Teens Is Hard. Lisa Damour Has Some Answers.” – Published for The New York Times by Christina Caron on August 28, 2023. Read Article