The Do's and Don’ts of Parenting an Anxious Teen
Raising teens who can "figure things out" on their own.
Posted April 24, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I have always been drawn to working with teenagers. They are goofy, funny, and their blooming personalities are fun to watch and experience. I bond well with teens, professionally, and feel that I can reach them. Perhaps because I am a first-generation Egyptian in not only the United States, but New Jersey nonetheless: I felt very torn between being an Egyptian and an American. I struggled to blend my two worlds and figure out who I was in the midst of it all.
My mother and father maintained a circle of friends who were also immigrants to the United States. We attended an Egyptian church weekly, and this was a large part of our social life. Our friends were other Egyptian-American teens and each week, we gathered together and shared our stories about our parents’ "ridiculous" views while our parents shared their favorite meals and nostalgic stories of the motherland. I had no idea where I fit in and how to balance and manage the expectations of our culture, religion and our life in a non-Egyptian community. I wish I had someone to talk to. Someone to validate the angst I felt well into my late 20s.
Now, let’s blast forward to the present where I am waiting for my son while he gets his hair cut. He’s darting looks at me while sending a text, “Don’t come near me.” Just to make this visual complete, I am sitting about 10 feet away from him. But he waves me over and asks, “What do you think? Short enough?”
I’m so confused.
That’s my boy: He’s in the midst of a time of physical growth, emotional chaos, social changes (constantly), insecurity, and trying to figure out his identity. He’s not alone. Adolescent boys and girls everywhere struggle with anxiety, and so is my adolescent boy.
I’m his mom first and a psychologist second, which makes my role as his mom that much more complicated. I know what I should say to him, but sometimes the words don’t come out of my mouth, or I shout the very phrases that I know I shouldn’t say. My emotions and worries overshadow my better judgment, but I also know that as parents, that’s the way we roll. We run (not only on Dunkin’) but also on emotion. We are not objective, but that’s okay too. I can still remember this young man, who now stands taller than me when he fit in the nook of my arm. Those days are gone, but his need for comfort and assurance are not.
When parenting an anxious adolescent, our natural tendency is to anticipate what type of situations are going to be difficult and then try to make them easier. We want to control the outcomes for our children to keep them comfortable and happy. This all comes from a place of love, but we are not giving our children the grit they need to grow into resilient people (Lythcott-Haims, 2015). Our natural tendency is to try to make it better, but our days of kissing it and making it better are behind us. Our job right now is helping our teens to “figure it out” while they are still in our presence and our home.
Say, “Don’t worry about it. It will be fine," and Don’t Make Any Promises.
I know that when I became a parent, I felt like a superhero, but this role didn’t come with any superpowers. Although we have greater experience in life and have a better chance of predicting how certain situations may play out, we still can’t predict the future. Our anxious teens want us to comfort them and to take the burden of worry from them. However, this results in young men and women who can’t sit with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’ and can become consumed and incapacitated by their worry. As their parents, our goal has been to make it better for them since their infancy, but at some point in their development, our mindset needs to change. Use this as your mantra: by offering them comfort in the moment, you’re providing your child with relief for the short-term, but certainly not for the long-term.
Don't Fix It.
How easy is it for us to fix a problem quickly and move on? We are pros at it by the time we have an adolescent on our hands. But when our teen has an issue or a problem, they often look to us for help, and our natural tendency is to tell them what to do or how to do it, or to go as far as doing it for them.
Are we doing this to soothe our anxiety or theirs? Maybe a little bit of both, but in the end, our teen doesn’t walk away from the situation having learned any problem-solving skills. You may think that by watching you, she is now internalizing the process and may reflect on it in the future. The truth of the matter is that our teen hasn’t worked through a problem and until they go through the process directly, she may not gain the experience or build the confidence about handling difficult situations as related to peers, academics, athletics or whatever.
This is not an easy transition for us as parents. We want to keep our children safe, emotionally as well as physically and so our instinct is strong, especially when you have a young man or woman who looks more an adult but is emotionally scared or insecure. Again, your mantra is your child’s short-term discomfort will lead to a long-term ability and confidence to problem solve.
Anxiety Essential Reads
Don't Choreograph or Coordinate.
I know how easy it is to find a group of moms or dads who also want the best for their children and then to choreograph and coordinate behind the scenes to bring certain kids together or make certain events happen. As parents, we don’t want to see our children excluded or left out of Facebook or Instagram photos. In a way, we, as their parents, feel the same FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as our teens. Maybe even worse.
I’ve worked with several adolescents who have had their social life choreographed without even knowing it was choreographed. The choreography changes once our children are in middle school or high school because we may not know the other parents as well. When our teens get to this point and they have "magically" had friendships and gatherings, I’m seeing a subset of adolescents who don’t know how to make social plans or develop new friendships without the help of the behind the scene choreography.
Don't Respond with High Emotion.
Our teens can be so dramatic, right? Yet the minute you show your emotions — laughter, sadness, anger, etc. — they shut off. They become very easily overwhelmed and can struggle to process a conversation or direction you are giving.
Several years ago, while in a session with a parent and her teenage daughter, her mother praised her for making an effort not to hit her sister. Her daughter responded that her mother was treating her like a toddler because she was smiling and she had intonation in her voice. Turned out, she was perfectly content with a quick high five, a “nice job for not beating your sister” and moving on with the day.
This is another tough transition because we are used to showing our enthusiasm, which, at one point, brought great joy to our children. Well, the rules have changed, and it’s time to jump up and down in your head while verbally conveying a much less overjoyed, “Nice.”
Do Ask Questions.
I don’t mean, “Who are you going out with and where are you going?” but questions that encourage your teen to problem solve and seek the resources around them to figure out how to work through a situation or dilemma. Ask questions like:
- “What do you think you want to do?
- “Have you ever been in a situation like this before?”
- “How do you think he/she will respond?”
- “Is there something else you can do?”
- “What are your options in this situation?
- “What can I help you with?”
These questions are communicating a strong message that you are not going to be doing the problem solving or brainstorming for them, that you believe that your teen can solve the problem and that you will be present and supportive. It is so easy to tell our children what to do and how to handle a problem, but unless they go through the experience, that skill won’t develop. It’s like a muscle, you need to give it resistance to build its strength.
Don’t be surprised if you are met with anger or resentment, especially if you have been the type of parent who has jumped right in and solved the problem easily and quickly. I remember the first time my daughter asked me a question and I responded, “I don’t know” in an effort to encourage her to generate ideas, she became infuriated with me, stating “You’re the mom. You have the answers. Fix it!”
As a parent and psychologist, my natural tendency is to want to make things better, to fix it, to give teens positive feedback they need to feel better. But, in doing so, am I really helping at all? Sometimes, well, a lot of the times, the answer is no. I tend to fare better with statements like:
- "I’m sorry. That sounds like that was a really rough day."
- "That sounds like that was tough to handle."
- "It sounds like you handled that situation well."
- "I like the way you chose to handle that situation."
Tell them how you feel about their efforts and be specific. So many of us are so quick to offer compliments, general ones. Our children gain an inflated sense of accomplishment and feel that they should receive plentiful positive feedback all the time. I know I had overdone it when my son was about 7 and he said, “Aren’t you going to tell me I’m doing a good job? Did I do a bad job?” I knew it was time to become more specific in my praise and to avoid over-praising. For example, say things like:
- "I can see how hard you are studying in advance for your math test. Do you feel like it helped you to achieve your grade?”
- “I’m happy to see that you’ve been making time to complete your homework each night this week.”
- “Your English paper has a good number of supporting details and higher-level vocabulary. Nice writing.”
Our teens, although they are becoming big people, also need to be validated as people and as our children. Let them know how you feel, which is an overpowering amount of love:
- “You are important to me.”
- “I care about you.”
- “I care about your safety.”
- “You are loved/I love you.”
- “You are enough.”
- “You are creative.”
- “You are funny.”
Raising a teen will never be an easy job. It is demanding, the emotions are high, and the requests are many. But watching our teens turn into these cool human beings with whom we want to spend time and share stories is also really awesome.
Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015). How to Raise an Adult. Henry Holt & Co., New York.