Most teens report feeling stressed out every so often, but for teens who chronically worry, the sense of being one step away from disaster never really goes away. Minor troubles are often blown out of proportion, leading to heightened anxiety and sometimes all-out panic attacks. Yet when parents try to coax teens to let go of their fears, their efforts are often met with resistance.
How do we get through to teens to stop the cycle of chronic worrying and anxiety?
Pick the Right Time to Intervene
When teens are at the height of anxiety and panic, they can’t easily process what you are saying since anxiety often triggers irrational thoughts. Wait until they have some time to decompress and are able to reason logically. Otherwise, it will be too hard for them to see the forest for the trees.
Connect Before You Correct
Before teens will stop and consider what you have to say, you need to demonstrate that you empathize with how they feel. Otherwise, you may hear, “You just don’t understand!” Resist offering advice for now and instead reflect back their thoughts and feelings. For example, for a teen who didn’t make a sports team, you might say, “You really wanted to get on the team and it feels like your year is ruined. That must be very hard.” Empathy helps create a vital bridge of communication between you and your teen.
Put Worries to the Test
Anxious teens need help to step back and analyze how they are viewing their situation. Prompt them to evaluate whether the facts of the situation show their interpretations to be skewed or too negative. Guide them in this process by asking questions that challenge their point of view. For example, you can ask, “What are some ways that the problem is not as bad as it seems right now?” Asking targeted questions instead of giving advice will help teens learn how to think instead of what to think. By engaging in this process, they will learn a powerful method of tackling worries in the future, before those worries take on a life of their own.
Discard Unproductive Worries and Shift Into Problem-Solving
Teens often worry about a problem that is so far off in the future that it can’t be addressed immediately (e.g., Will I get into college?) or can’t be solved at all (e.g., What if my boyfriend and I break up?). Teens need to be encouraged to avoid giving such worries too much importance. For more productive worries (e.g., How will I pass my test?), teens should engage in problem-solving and brainstorm possible solutions to the current problem. This shift to a problem-solving mode will help them re-focus on the here-and-now and away from unproductive worry.
Treat Repetitive Irrational Worries As False Alarms
Some teens suffer from repetitive irrational worries about something bad happening, such as a thought that a burglar will break into the house. Unlike everyday worry, these thoughts are qualitatively different. No matter how much reassurance is given that the thought won’t come true, fear is again triggered when the thought returns. To defeat these worries, teens and their parents should treat them like false alarms that don’t deserve attention. Paradoxically, the more effort given to trying to remove these thoughts, the more they stay put. So, the next time this type of worry comes around, both teens and parents should treat it like spam in one’s inbox and see it as unimportant. Such thoughts then usually fade away on their own.
Sheila Achar Josephs, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and anxiety expert with over twenty years of experience helping kids, teens, families, and adults. She is founder of Princeton Cognitive Therapy, a practice specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, and the author of Helping Your Anxious Teen.