Dear Friends and Family,
When someone in your life struggles with anxiety, it can be difficult for everyone involved, especially when it’s your child. If you’re like most parents of teens with anxiety, you are probably worried about them and want to be helpful but may not be sure of the best ways to approach what feels like a tricky subject. At the same time, you might be frustrated that they might not be as willing to do the activities they used to do. You might notice that their anxiety seems responsible for their irritability, poor concentration, ruminating thoughts, panic attacks, avoidance, or isolation. You most likely want to do anything to help the person you care about feel better.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to do, especially when the anxiety brings up your fears and concerns about your own struggle with mental health, or you feel that the future seems bleak. You might find yourself trying to help, only to feel like you are saying the wrong thing. Or maybe you try to comfort your loved ones, and you notice them close off even more.
What is important to know is that you do have value as a supporter in this teen’s life, and there are ways to help build openness and connection in your relationship.
What is Not Helpful
There are many common comfort statements that most people say that can actually have the opposite effect than intended. It is essential to begin to notice what types of interactions close off communication and leave teens feeling alone in their struggles.
Here are some tips for what to avoid when trying to offer help.
- Blind Reassurance- Saying things like “Everything will be okay” or “There’s nothing to worry about” may feel accurate to you but actually diminishes the feelings your teen is experiencing. When anxiety is present, many things feel uncertain and potentially devastating, so giving reassurance with little context is alienating to that person who will most likely walk away thinking, “They don’t get it.”
- Oversimplified Advice- Remember that if this teen could easily stop their anxiety, they would already have done that! Saying things like “Just breathe” or “Just Relax” can feel insulting to the person as they have probably already thought of these things. Making overcoming their anxiety sound easy can actually increase their guilt or embarrassment about struggling, as these statements do not acknowledge the challenge they face.
- Pushing Expectations- You might be trying to encourage someone, but telling them they aren’t living up to their potential or “They could do so much more” can feel imprisoning. These types of statements can be paralyzing for a teen to hear as it can feel impossible to live up to expectations or make them question if they are truly accepted. At the same time, giving them small challenges or engineering moments where they experience success can be incredibly helpful.
- Commiserating – Maybe you also experience anxiety and want them to know that you have worries too. Although it is helpful to know that they are not alone in their struggle, be careful not to spiral one another deeper into anxiety. Focusing on your own struggles can also lessen someone else’s experience by comparison without really asking how the other person feels.
Ways to be Supportive
After learning certain things to avoid, it is helpful to know what to do instead. Having a person that a teen feels secure with and trusts can be a massive help with anxiety. Here are some tools to use to help build understanding instead of distance.
- Be Open to Listen – Although you might want to fix the anxiety, the best thing that you can do is listen. Asking open-ended questions can provide the teen with a chance to reflect on how they have been feeling. Having a space that feels safe just to talk will help a teen feel seen and valued.
- Empathy- While you’re listening, instead of giving advice, provide some empathic support. Instead of saying “relax,” you could say, “That sounds like a difficult feeling.” Empathy can help calm people by acknowledging the feeling and that it is okay to feel that way.
- Facilitate, Don’t Dictate- You may have collected some really excellent skills to help deal with anxiety. Instead of blurting them out, first ask the teen if they would like to brainstorm ways to help. They might be open to this, or they might not be in a space at that moment to process skills. It is incredibly empowering for teens when you express your confidence that they can solve their own problems or acknowledge that they have already thought through some potential solutions.
- Ask Permission – Again, instead of sharing your thoughts right away, allow your teen the autonomy to know what they need at the moment. They might not be ready for solutions, but they may be open to it later. Lay the groundwork now, and letting your teen ask for advice when they need it will make them more likely to hear it.
- Learn About Anxiety and Seek Your Own Support – The more you educate yourself on how anxiety works, the better you can empathize and offer support. This also includes learning from your teen. Do not assume that you know how your teen feels because you have had anxiety in the past; they are the experts of their experience. Along with this, remember that you can seek out support for yourself too! Supporting a teen through anxiety is a challenging experience, and you may need to process your fears and feelings with a supportive listener.
Your Therapist at PURE Health Center
PURE Health Center is here to help you and your loved ones learn more about how anxiety works and ways to address it. Please reach out today to learn more about our counseling services.