by Chris Taylor, MFT, Author “Back to Basics”
Fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of judgment or lack of acceptance, all of these are other ways of describing anxiety. Whatever the root cause or the irrational fear behind it, anxiety can be debilitating to the point of paralysis. For any person who deals with anxiety, the challenge lies in how to manage and eventually overcome the limitations that it creates, but for teens the impact speaks at a level of core beliefs that can drastically alter the trajectory of the developmental milestone of identity formation. The question for a parent is, what can I do to help? Obviously this is a sensitive topic in that addressing it directly with your teen can trigger the exact anxiety response you are hoping to avoid. In this article we focus on 4 ways parents can help reduce anxiety in their teens.
Identify Triggers: The first way that parents can help their teens reduce anxiety is to help them identify the triggers for the anxiety. Understanding how your teen responds to academic pressure, parental pressure, nagging, large groups, high-pressured situations, etc., should lead parents to making accommodations in their approach and exploring their teens feelings as other situations arise.
Teach Breathing: Ocean breathing, yoga breathing, and box breathing are all breathing exercises that, when done regularly and consistently, result in a reduction in the activation of parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our physiological response to stress. When a teen is having severe anxiety their bodies respond by shortening their breath, adjusting heart rate, which creates an oxygen-deprived environment. By intentionally bringing oxygen into the system, the stress response is interrupted.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: When the body enters into an oxygen-deprived state, it compensates by taking oxygen out of the muscles and creating muscle tension. This continues the negative feedback loop between thoughts and physiology and sends a signal that the stress response should continue. By intentionally tensing major muscle groups, then relaxing them, the body is sent a message that relaxation, and not stress, is occurring. Partnering this with breathing exercises is a sure fire way to reduce anxiety.
Seek Outside Help: When your teen does not seem to be responding to these basic interventions, it is time to call in a qualified therapist. In addition to the above skills, a qualified mental health therapist will be able to address the underlying mechanisms at work. Whether it is the process of catastrophizing, low self-esteem, or performance anxiety, a therapist will address the thought processes and resolve these issues with targeted thought stopping activities. Do not hesitate to seek outside help if you see your teen struggling but are not sure what you can do to help.
As a parent, you can help your teen reduce their anxiety and give them the opportunity to have a healthy and active approach to life. When we are driven by fear, we withdraw, isolate, and deny ourselves the very opportunities we need to initiate positive change. Communicate a message of hope with your teen that their challenges can be met in effective ways and they will thrive.