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Raising Teenagers in the Age of Anxiety

Teens have good reason to be anxious.

Photo by Fernando @dearferdo on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Fernando @dearferdo on Unsplash

Mystified by your teenager's behavior? Broken-hearted by the changes you see in him?

It's natural to mourn the loss of the wonder years when your kid becomes a teen.

“He was so creative and playful in elementary school.”

“She was always laughing and had so many friends.”

“He loved family time. Now he won’t come out of his room.”

If you're eager to know what caused your easy-going child to morph into a sullen, irritable, and complicated person—this article's for you.

Adolescence and Anxiety

Massive biological and psychological maturation floods adolescents with feelings of anxiety. Changes in brain chemistry, surging hormones, and a pesky underdeveloped prefrontal cortex destabilize teens resulting in a fragile sense of self, labile moods, and poor impulse control.

Sounds like fun? It isn't. (See "The Negative Voices Inside Your Teenagers Head")

Teenagers are overwhelmed with emotions that they don't understand. Uncertainty and insecurity plague them. Add to their struggles a daily dose of social, sexual, and academic tension, and in a single day, teenagers may experience euphoria, crushing hurt, overwhelming anxiety, or deep despair.

No wonder teenagers don't want to get out of bed.

As anxiety builds, so does psychic, physical, and emotional tension. Unfortunately, teenagers have limited emotional vocabulary, causing them to have more feelings than words. Without the ability to express themselves, the pressure builds, giving way to crushing anxiety that erupts in disruptive behaviors such as erratic moods, senseless raging, or impulsive choices.

If you're looking for your teenager to demonstrate mindfulness, patience, or clear-headed thinking, look somewhere else. Holding to such high ideals during this challenging period only sets the stage for more conflicts.

The Age of Anxiety

Warren Getler, the author of the novel PANIC, which chronicles the emotional peaks and valleys of a young man with panic disorder, uses the term "Age of Anxiety" to describe the times we live in. He certainly has hit a nerve. Researchers note that nearly 20% of the population suffers from anxiety disorders (US News), and according to ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), 80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not getting treatment. (See "Three Signs Your Teenager Needs Therapy")

What's more, the turbulent state of the world compounds teenagers' fears. Consider what they have to deal with today that past generations didn't have to contend with:

  • School shooters
  • Catastrophic global warming predictions
  • Ongoing terrorist threats
  • The opiate crisis
  • Toxic social media outlets
  • Skyrocketing college debt
  • Competitive standardized testing
  • Compulsive technology use

What's more, teens today are bombarded with bad news on their smartphones at a time when they have very few coping skills to manage their emotions.

The Fog of Teen Anxiety

Emotional tension is at the core of teen angst. When teens feel anxious, they can't think clearly, can't regulate their moods or impulses, and have trouble focusing. Perhaps they have difficulty falling asleep or difficulty waking up. Why? Because anxiety disrupts all aspects of their functioning.

How to Lower Anxiety in Teenagers

If you sense that your teenager is anxious, take extra care not to drive up their anxiety by becoming reactive and punitive. It's okay to lose your temper now and then, but constant yelling, guilting, blaming, shaming, criticizing, and other aggressive choices will drive your teenager away from you and spike their anxiety to dangerous levels. As anxiety intensifies, so do destructive behaviors such as cutting, eating disorders, hyperactivity, or substance abuse.

Here are five ways to lower anxiety in your teenager:

  1. Model the behaviors you want to see. Self-mastery is the key to effective parenting. Do your best to model restraint and keep communication flowing. For example, losing it over an unmade bed, at the cost of damaging your relationship, isn't worth it.
  2. De-escalate conflicts. Teens are impulsive and reactive—adults shouldn't be. Step away from conflict when it gets heated, take a breather, and chill out. When you come back, try to address the core feelings driving the conflict rather than repeating a reactive loop.
  3. Hold family meetings. Don't wait for a problem to emerge to address it. Family meetings are a great time to show appreciation for what your kid did right, plan family vacations or activities, and discuss chores or conflicts. Frequently, parents discuss thorny subjects at the worst time, such as in the middle of an argument or when everyone is exhausted from a long day. The ultimate role of family meetings is to provide an outlet to foster healthy communication.
  4. Maintain structure, limits, and boundaries. Structure soothes anxiety. Routines such as family dinners, bedtimes, curfews, etc., help teenagers to feel safe and cared for. It's okay to be flexible, but without consistency, teens soon go off the rails. Of course, structure, limits, and boundaries can be amended once trust and consistency are well established.
  5. Tech detox as a family. Put down your phone, store the laptop, take a break from social media. Compulsive technology use is a growing problem with enormous emotional consequences. Look for creative outlets that are self-soothing, such as music, art, or exercise. And remember to practice self-care. An unhappy or burnt-out parent is a burden to a child at any age. The best way to help your teenager is to help yourself first. If you're overwhelmed or living in a state of anxiety, you can't parent effectively.

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