Teen Angst: How to Parent Teens with Anxiety

As any parent could tell you, parenting a teenager is no easy task. From growth spurts to hormone fluctuations, teens undergo so many physical, behavioral, and social changes that it can feel like you’re constantly trying to keep up with the mood of the hour.

This can get especially complicated when your teen has anxiety. Along with the challenges of adolescence, they have to deal with the symptoms of their illness on a daily basis. As a parent, this can be difficult to watch – but fortunately, you can help more than you might think.

Here are a few strategies to successfully parent teens with anxiety to get them on the road to mental wellness.

Believe Your Teen

Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses, and they affect 25% of all teens. In other words, teen anxiety is far from unheard of – which is all the more reason you should believe them when they confide in you.

Unfortunately, many parents believe their teenagers are using anxiety as an excuse to get out of tasks like going to school. However, it’s important to remember that anxiety isn’t a fun excuse to avoid doing something; it’s often an embarrassing, nearly crippling illness that most teenagers would love to not have to deal with. Because of this, it’s especially important that you listen to your child and let them know you believe them to effectively help them work on their issues.

Do Your Research

After that first step, it’s time to educate yourself on the ins and outs of teen anxiety to help your child as much as possible. After all, the more knowledgeable you are, the more tools you’ll have at your disposal to provide support and make your teenager’s life a little easier.

A good place to start is by debunking any misconceptions you may have about anxiety in teenagers. For example, teens don’t necessarily have to go through trauma to experience severe anxiety; the illness has a strong genetic and environmental component to be aware of.

Once you’ve unburdened yourself of these misconceptions, you should read books, watch videos, and even look at some research studies to get a fuller picture of what your child is dealing with and the best strategies to help. For instance, despite previous assertions to the contrary, a recent study has shown that SSRIs (a common form of antidepressant) are very effective in treating pediatric anxiety – at a margin of about 20% when compared with adults. This kind of information will make you a better supporter and advocate for your teen.

Choose Your Accommodations Wisely

It can be tempting to go one of two ways when parenting a teen with anxiety: you might try to bend to their every wish, or push them hard to get through it. 5.9% of teenagers have a “severe” anxiety disorder that can lead to significant issues like suicidal ideation, so it’s especially important to tread the balance between the two extremes carefully.

On the accommodating side of things, it’s important to modify your expectations for your teen, especially during stressful periods. This isn’t to say that you should baby them, but allowing them to handle issues at their own pace will help them more than pushing them harder than they can handle. Instead of strong arming your teen to face their fears and “get over it,” practice empathy and support them when they voice their discomfort. Consider setting up small challenges, like asking an employee where to find an item in a grocery store, before pushing them into larger ones like attending a party where they don’t know many people.

On the other hand, it’s also important to not completely cater to your teen’s anxiety, or it may not improve. Just like pushing too hard, we know this comes from a place of love – you want to make it all go away, so you help them avoid situations that might trigger discomfort. However, your teen needs to learn how to operate in the real world, and you’re the best person in their life to show them how.

Instead of helping your teenager practice avoidance, which can actually make anxiety worse, set up those small challenges and encourage and praise them when they accomplish them. Over time, they’ll build a tolerance and steadily graduate to more significant, uncomfortable tasks.

For more insights on helping your teen manage anxiety, check out the extended version of this article on Medium.