- Make Your Teen’s Fears and Worries the Problem, Not Your Teen. Fears and worries are bad enough for teens, but it’s even tougher when teens are made to feel like they’re the problem. Often anxious teens are teased by other teens and called “chicken” or “fraidy-cats.” Teachers and family members may think of the teen as “lazy” or “oppositional.” When you’re tempted to view your teen’s anxiety symptoms as “bad behavior,” remember that the general view of anxiety disorders is that they reflect a biological (as well as psychological) vulnerability. Your teen is struggling to cope with this vulnerability and doing the best he or she can. Criticism or other forms of punishment make it harder for your teen to face fears and worries, so be patient while you and your teen’s therapist implement the treatment strategies that will, in the long run, reduce anxiety symptoms.
- Stop Giving Advice. Many teens already know that their fears are exaggerated or inappropriate. Reminding teens that their anxious behaviors are crazy and that they don’t make sense generally makes teens feel worse. Similarly, telling the teen to “just stop it” when they’re seeking reassurance or exhibiting other anxious behaviors doesn’t work either. No one hates the fears and worries more than your teen and your teen would have faced the fears already if they could. You may notice that your teen may be very anxious and fearful one day but not the next. This may lead you to believe that your teen is manipulating you or that the anxiety symptoms are willful behavior. However, some days your teen may be less plagued by worry, less stressed, less fearful and better able to face his or her fears than other days. This is the nature of the vulnerability. Lecturing your teen or giving other well-intentioned advice doesn’t help and tends to make things worse.
- Learn All You Can About Anxiety Disorders. If your teen had asthma or diabetes you’d want to know as much about the illness and its treatment as possible. The same is true for anxiety disorders. Fortunately, there are many fine resources, including lay and professional books, websites, and organizations. Join the Anxiety Disorders Association of America or the International OC Foundation (if your teen has OCD). Speak to your therapist about any of these resources. Information is power!
- Encourage and Model Constructive Self-Talk. Most anxious teens are their worst enemies. They tend to be very critical of themselves for feeling worried or afraid, especially when their anxiety has created problems in school, with peers, or at home. Your teens critical self-talk contributes to greater anxiety before, during, and after therapy tasks, such as graduated exposure. When teens say to themselves, “I can’t do this. I’m just a loser,” or similar critical remarks, this kind of self-talk decreases the likelihood that teens will face their fears or use the anxiety coping strategies they’ve learned. Go over with your teen positive (but realistic) self-statements that emphasize your teen’s ability to cope with the anxiety using the tools your teen has learned. Also, you might model for your teen the use of positive self-talk in tasks that you attempt. For example, you might say aloud to yourself when your teen is around, “I can change this tire. It may take me a little longer to do it than our mechanic, but I can do it. It just takes a little time.”
- Encourage Your Teen to Face Rather Than Avoid Anxiety. The key strategy that helps teens overcome fear and manage fears and anxiety over their lifetimes is to face rather than avoid what they fear. This approach is counter-intuitive for most anxious teens and therefore you’ll want to help them learn and practice this attitude during and after therapy. Adopt this attitude yourself and look for any opportunity to help your teen face fears, one step at a time (even when they’re really small steps), whenever possible. Make it fun, make it a contest, but make it happen
- Develop Your Own Plan to Take Care of Yourself. Caring for an anxious teen is challenging and stressful. Parents try their best to help calm a teen who is whining non-stop or throwing a tantrum but usually their efforts don’t solve the problem. Repeated attempts that result in inconsistent results can leave parents feeling frustrated, helpless and hopeless. For these reasons, it’s essential that you have a plan so that you know what to do and not do during one of your teen’s anxious episodes. For example, some parents find it helpful to take turns helping the teen manage anxious episodes so that the fears and worries don’t overburden one family member. Or, you might join a support group such as the many available through the IOC Foundation (if your teen has OCD). Your teen’s therapist will help you with this. Also, don’t put your life on hold because of your teen’s fears and worries. Parents who are burned out, unhappy, because they don’t take care of themselves aren’t much help to their anxious teen.
Help Your Teen Relax
In The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens, Michael Tompkins and Jonathan Barkin, specialists in teen anxiety and stress, have developed skills for teens to identify the things that tend to stress them out and make a plan to relax and reduce stress in their lives. The workbook offers teens proven-effective CBT interventions with over 40 simple age-appropriate evidence-based activities.