Empowering Your Anxious Tween

Tips and tools to help your child tolerate the distress.

Posted Nov 09, 2017

Juan Monino/istock
Source: Juan Monino/istock

There has been much emphasis on the increasing anxiety in tweens and teens. A recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine highlights that this has become an overwhelming issue for many children and their families. If you are a parent of a child who is affected, school professional, or clinician, this epiphany is certainly not surprising news.

Many have tried to understand and reason why it seems that so many kids are suffering from anxiety. It is true our children are being raised in a seemingly more demanding society than we were. The influences resulting from living in a digital culture ruled by smartphones, tablets, laptops, and of course, social media, cannot be underscored enough.

As many have hypothesized, however, these innovations cannot fully explain the rising prevalence rates. Add in the academic pressures, concerning current events, and economic challenges faced by so many families today and perhaps we have created the perfect storm. While thoughtful discourse on how this happened is certainly helpful, a solution-oriented discussion is imperative.

The good news perhaps is that anxiety is a beast that can be at least contained if not completely slain. It is, of course, important to seek the help of a professional. It should also be cautioned that empowering your tween to manage anxiety also means he will have to learn to tolerate the effects.

Nothing hurts a parent more than watching their child suffer. The urge to protect by ensuring that your child avoids exposure to certain situations can be overwhelming and even successful, although momentary. When your child struggles with anxiety it can feel like you are a living in a world in which the smallest of situations can result in crisis. The realistic path to empowerment includes exposure to the very stress your tween would gleefully like to avoid.

So rule number one is that you need to build your ability to tolerate the fact that your child is distressed. Rule number two involves you stepping back and allowing your child to be exposed to the very stress that can result in panic. Here’s the thing though, kids are unbelievably resilient. Quite often, one simple success is enough to arm a child with a ‘can-do’ attitude. It can convince a child that she will survive and even thrive. Competency then is a key to conquering anxiety.

Too much too soon too late

It can certainly be a difficult dance to strike the balance between tolerating distress and being overwhelmed by it. Forcing a tween to face her fears head-on can sometimes end in dire consequences, specifically an inclination when pushed to actually run the opposite direction. A student struggling in a particular academic area, for example, may feel the urge to avoid especially when feeling nagged or badgered by a well-meaning parent who has just come to realize the severity of an academic situation through a progress report or report card.

Don’t get me wrong; an intervention may indeed be required. It is not what needs to be done that becomes the issue but rather how. The tween years are marked by the push and pull between parents and children. One minute, they seem to be running toward you asking for assistance, advice, and even intervention; the next they want nothing to do with you because they got it; they can handle it on their own.

Egos are especially vulnerable during these pre-puberty years. An offer to help is often rejected because it is read as a suggestion that the child is incapable of managing a situation on his own. Of course, this could not be further from the truth, no one leads the cheering section louder for your tween than you! So the answer then is to ease your tween into facing her fears and subsequent anxieties. This all starts with a structured plan.

Why structure slays stress

In order to empower your tween with the ability to manage anxiety, he needs to be appropriately equipped with the tools. A structured action-oriented plan offers security. This starts by sitting down with your tween to create an individualized strategy of attack. A rule bound approach is best. If for example, your tween is feeling overwhelmed in a particular academic area, he may feel inclined to take a break during or even skip the class altogether. Although this avoidant urge maybe strong, it is clearly counterproductive. A point you should certainly discuss with your tween. Put simply, if he misses the whole or part of the very class he is struggling in, he sets himself up for more struggles. As you can explain to him, he ensures he will fall behind because he is not around to learn the material.

A better strategy is to focus on staying in class, even if he begins to feel overwhelmed or confused. Hone in on some things he can do to learn or better understand the material after class. Staying after for extra help, for example, talking over the material with a friend who seems to understand the content, if warranted and possible, working with a tutor. Just sitting in class listening and taking notes will be helpful if there is a plan to reinforce the material that was presented.

Worrying about worrying instead of worrying about the worry

One strategy I usually include is to set up a ‘worry schedule.’ Have your tween identify times when he is allowed to worry about stuff during the day. Limit the worrying time to five to 10 minutes. Often the best times are in between classes if he is in middle school, and between subjects, specials (such as art, music, etc.) lunch, and recess if he is in elementary school. There should also be one time set up after school. If during class he starts to worry, he can then say to himself, “I can’t worry now, this is not a worry time.”

Worrying about worrying is actually better than worrying about the worry itself because it is an indirect worry. It puts distance between your tween and the actual worry. This can, in turn, build confidence if it is highlighted as a successful attempt to ward off the actual worry.

Pictures can bring peace

Another technique that can offer serenity in a time of stress is to make sure your tween keeps a few favorite pictures with her. Some common favorites are a picture of the family on a recent vacation, family pet, or random picture of puppies or kittens. Tell your tween when she is feeling overwhelmed to reset her brain, by taking a quick peek at one of her pictures. This can help to distract from the worry and allows her to then refocus on the moment instead of the worry.

Medication contemplation

As a parent, the thought of putting your child on medication for anxiety can be a difficult dilemma. Of course, the first step is a full evaluation from a professional. If medication is being recommended perhaps it is helpful to know that when medication is indicated, research reflects that the most effective treatment for anxiety is a combination of medication and psychotherapy. As a clinical professional, I can tell you that for some children it really sets them free. The medication allows them to do the work necessary to learn the skills to manage their symptoms. As I always tell my own clients, my job is to help them help themselves. You will, of course, have to weigh all the pros and cons. Talk with your child’s therapist and the medical professional making the recommendation.

Remember that your child’s care is a team effort. Ask questions and offer your concerns. It is important to be heard and to listen. It can be helpful to connect with other parents who have had to make the same decision. Be sure to talk with your child about this possibility. Explain to him why you are considering this option, and reassure him by answering any questions he may have. In addition, make sure he has an opportunity to speak with the clinical professionals involved in making the recommendation. Encourage him to ask them questions directly and to express any related worries or concerns to them. You may be surprised by his feedback. When a child is suffering so, he is often willing to try anything to get relief. Your child puts his full trust in you and the team of professionals working with him to find successful solutions.

When anxiety accumulates the result can be overwhelming. Kids who develop skills to manage their distress are best equipped to ease their anxiety. A structured plan involves clear guidelines and strategies that can be routinely implemented. The best way to conquer anxiety is to encourage competency. This is achieved through a series of successful attempts to at least keep anxiety in check. In the end, when your tween feels empowered, he is appropriately armed to take on anxiety. It is invigorating for your child to feel that she controls the anxiety, it does not control her.