Comforting the Anxious Teen
"The good old days.” “The best years of our lives.” “Back when life was easy.” Sometimes we refer to our growing up years with more than a little nostalgia. Sure, we had things to worry about. We dealt with shifting emotions, changing bodies, challenges at home, and the pressure to live a better life than our parents did. But compared to the weighty responsibilities we carry as adults, the stress of our teen years was minimal.
Times have changed.
A recent study shows that 48% of young adults these days are diagnosable for a behavioral disorder like anxiety. It’s no understatement to say that teens today aren’t facing the normal “angst” that we all went through. In increasing numbers, modern teens are experiencing an overwhelming sense of unease, worry, or fear about upcoming events or activities with an uncertain outcome. While a little anxiety can be a good thing—pushing us to study harder or excel a little more—severe anxiety is devastating to a teenager. We’ll talk about ways we can deal with the problem later on. But first, it helps to know what we’re up against.
Causes of Anxiety
Earlier this month, a news article reported that a high school teacher was fired for showing a video of a real life violent murder to his class. His rationale? The kids were probably going to see it anyway. While seriously misguided, this irresponsible teacher has a point. Kids from kindergarten on up are bombarded with images and ideas that are way beyond their emotional levels. There are over 4.2 million pornographic sites on the Internet, all easily accessed. Current television programs and movies portray emotional dilemmas and social concepts that even adults have trouble dealing with. During the growing up years, kids don’t have the maturity to treat and filter what they are exposed to on a daily basis. Add to this mixture the stress of keeping up with all the social pressures from friends and peers, and it becomes too much to handle. Unequipped to manage the events around them, teens feel like throwing up their hands and shouting, I can’t handle this! This world is too intimidating for me!
Unfortunately, our teen’s anxiety doesn’t always end when they head home. Parents have certain expectations for their kids that are required and needed. But taken too far, those expectations can drive anxiety to the brink. We have educational expectations—get good grades, take AP classes, prepare for college. But we also want them to have outside goals—join the football team, make first chair violin, become the next chess Grand Master. Then, because we care about their walk with God, we carry spiritual report cards around and take inventory of church attendance, youth group activity, moral behavior, and Bible study.
No wonder so many teenagers are trying to escape the constant overload of pressure and expectations! Too often they are over-scheduled and under-prepared. Reminds me of the verse in Ephesians 6:4 that says, “Fathers [or mothers], do not exasperate your children.”
Signs of Anxiety
To cope with the overwhelming pressures of life, teens often turn to alternative avenues of relief. It could be losing themselves in video games or Facebook. It could be finding temporary relief in drugs or alcohol. Or it could be expressed in outbursts of anger and harmful activities like cutting. Some of the typical signs of serious anxiety include:
- Disengaging from most activities
- Sleeping in more
- Changes in eating habits
- Severe change in behavior
- Breaking off relationships with friends or family
- Spending large amounts of time alone
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it can give you telltale warning signs that your teen is spiraling further into anxiety.
Solutions for Anxiety
Anxiety is a real problem. But as a parent, you can help your teen relieve their stress levels in a healthy way. Be prepared for it to take patience, understanding and grace as both teens and parents strive to keep things under control.
It all starts with a well-framed question. Carve out time to sit down with your son or daughter and ask them about their fears, their worries, what they are looking forward to, what things they are excited about. Discover the triggers and switches in your teen’s life that cause them to feel anxious. The more you spend time talking together, the more your teen will open up and confide those things that are causing them pain and worry.
In addition to asking good questions, give you teen permission to say no. It could be that the tuba lessons, math tutor, soccer practice, or youth group is overwhelming your kid to the point that they feel like dropping everything. It’s okay to allow your son or daughter to back away from certain activities if they cause him or her stress. Tell your teen, Hey, it sounds like your plate is really full right now. Is there something that you can give up that would lighten your load? This is not an excuse to relinquish all responsibilities, but it’s allowing your teen the freedom to unload their lives a little.
Moms and Dads, don’t forget your kids need you. Spending quality time together is crucial to helping them unload stress. This might mean giving up your weekly golf game in favor of having breakfast with your son. It could mean letting go of that committee you’re a part of to go shopping with your daughter. There will always be time after the kids are out of the house to invest in your hobbies. But in these critical formative years, kids need their parents desperately.
Finally, do your best to make the home a sanctuary. After a long day of being exposed to a thousand different ideas and influences, make your house a place where your kids feel safe and protected, free of anxiety or undue pressures. Tell stories and jokes at the dinner table, instead of quizzing them about their day. Encourage them when they walk in the door. Play games or watch TV together after chores and homework is over. Let your home be a welcome stop for your teen on the careening highway of life.
Teens aren’t the only ones who struggle with anxiety. Raising up children can be a stressful task! If you’re dealing with anxieties of your own, I encourage you to bring those burdens to the God who loves you. Set the tone for your family as you release your worries and cares to Him. We serve a God who is bigger and stronger than anything this world can throw at us. And that’s a truth that will serve us throughout our lives.