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Anxiety in Teens: How You Can Help

Knowledge of positive development can boost teen mental health.

Source: TalyanaGI/DepositPhotos

More and more studies show increasing rates of anxiety in teens and college students. Other mental health issues can go hand-in-hand, including depression and addiction. A team of UC Berkeley researchers recently reported that the number of 18-to-26-year-olds suffering from anxiety has doubled since 2008, in part from rising financial stress and increased time with digital devices.

According to the Pew Research Center, seven in 10 teenagers see these mental health issues as major problems among their peers. In fact, anxiety and depression are of higher concern to young people than bullying.

In 2019, there have been over 16,000 studies worldwide on anxiety in teens, the causes, and how to treat the growing epidemic.

Often overlooked in the research, however, are the positive foundations of development that can reduce and often avert anxiety in teens. Researchers already know what parents, teachers, and youth mentors do to build positive internal strengths in young people that can protect them from anxiety and the many stressors of growing up in a highly competitive, digital society.

From a research perspective, the data is clear that the seeds of healthy development are sown through the relationships that young people share with caring adults. The best way to boost mental health in teens is to focus on these relationships and the significant aspects of them that are the foundations of healthy development. Even when young people are being treated for anxiety, parents, teachers, and other caring adults can play a supportive role in helping teens overcome the many stressors of adolescent life.

6 Ways to Reduce Anxiety in Teens

The cause of anxiety in teens is not fully understood. Young people can feel anxious for many reasons, including the buildup of smaller stressful events, having a personality more prone to anxiety, or experiencing abuse or trauma. Drug or alcohol use can worsen anxiety.

Parents and other caring adults often feel helpless when children are hurting. Yet, armed with the following understanding of developmental research, they can make a huge difference in a young person’s life and help reduce anxiety in teens.

1. Teens need attachment relationships throughout adolescence. An attachment relationship is a deep and sustaining emotional bond that connects one person to another. It begins in infancy with the mother-child relationship and shows kids they matter and are worthy of love. It continues with parents and/or other caring adults throughout adolescence.

Neuroscientists have shown it is through these consistent, foundational relationships that the neural network of the maturing brain is developed. Even when attachment relationships are lost or interrupted, they can be rebuilt through caring adult support. Most importantly, the adolescent brain continues to benefit from a close bond with a parent or other adult for different reasons than it did during the early years, including how to help kids feel competent and resourceful—a known antidote to stress and anxiety in teens.

2. Teens achieve more when not pressured to be perfect. Subtle messages about performance and perfectionism fuel anxiety in teens and are pervasive in today’s culture. And teens feel the pressure. When parents suggest, “You can do better,” they must also ask, “How much better is enough?” Why? Because teens begin to ask themselves, “Am I enough?” Many begin to believe they are not.

Phrases like, “I know you are doing your best,” have hidden meanings. The child waits for the “but…you could do better.” Parents and teachers can shift to a more positive message, like, “Everyone makes mistakes; that’s how we learn.” When a child gets a grade less than hoped, a positive take by a parent might be, “I know you must be disappointed. Feeling disappointed is often what makes us strive harder or change how we do things. I love you no matter what grades you get.”

3. Teens thrive on nonjudgmental support. Passing judgment on a child for how they are different, what they do, or how they look tells them you are disappointed in who they are. It makes them feel less worthy of love.

Often, parents and teachers judge teens without understanding them. Judging is a quick way to show disapproval. To build an enduring, supportive relationship with teens, adults must stop passing judgment and instead attempt to understand. It is through understanding that teenagers learn to accept themselves for who they are.

4. Teens have normal fears about their lives and futures. Adolescence is a time when kids search for their identities. It is accompanied by tremendous changes in the brain’s neural network. These changes can be a natural trigger for anxiety in teens as they begin to worry about how they fit into society.

These fears are a normal part of growing up. Adults can help reduce this anxiety by normalizing it. Engage teens in conversations about their fears. Share stories of your own fears. When families learn to communicate about adversity, children become less anxious and more resilient.

5. Teens want to find meaning and purpose in their lives. With adolescence comes the positive ability to reflect on one’s own thinking. This is what neuroscientists call metacognition. As children’s metacognitive abilities increase, research suggests they also achieve at higher levels.

When adults invite teens to reflect on their thoughts and feelings, they affirm the value of a young person’s experiences. The latest research in neuroscience reinforces the importance of sharing stories. By discussing movies, books, and life stories, teens have an opportunity to see the world in new and different ways. This affirmation and sharing often reduce anxiety and sparks self-awareness.

6. Teens need to feel understood. Empathy during the adolescent years is a powerful tool for reducing anxiety in teens. When young people feel seen, heard, and understood, they feel positive about themselves and worry less about being perfect or fitting in. Rather than talking only about the surface of experiences, invite conversations that ask teens to go deeper: “How did that experience make you feel?” “What were you feeling in your body?” “What does that say to you?” Listening for understanding is the key to empathy. Three skills linked to good listening are:

  • Have respect for the other person.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Always seek understanding.
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