Helping teenagers to cope with anxiety

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Anxiety is quite common among teenagers. In fact, anxiety is so synonymous with teenage years that a lot of parents don’t see it as a problem that needs treating.

It’s true that sometimes anxiety is just a phase that passes before too long, and without too much effect on the teen’s life. However, in some cases the fears and worries reach a point that they severely affect wellbeing. In my experience, two forms of anxiety that can wreak havoc in the teenage years are social anxiety and separation anxiety.

Social anxiety is anxiety about social situations and comes from an intense fear of being judged, criticised or ridiculed by others. Adolescence is a time of intense self consciousness anyway, so a bit of social anxiety is normal. It becomes a problem when kids start avoiding more and more social situations in an effort to keep their anxiety under control. Instead of helping with anxiety, regular avoidance actually leads to a sharp increase in anxiety. As the anxiety gets bigger, more social situations are avoided and your teen’s life gets smaller and smaller. This is a big worry because kids miss out on a lot of great things, and this can lead to isolation and depression.

Separation anxiety is the fear of being away from main care-givers (usually the parents). We associate separation anxiety with babies and toddlers, but it is also quite common in teens and pre-teens. Adolescence is like a second toddler hood, when kids are trying to balance their need for independence (moving away) with dependence on their family. There is often a lot of tension around this balance for teens, which is why they can be distant and non-caring one minute, and demanding and needy the next.

A teenager with separation anxiety isn’t handling this balance too well, and develops extreme fear of being away from one of their parents. Some teenagers will refuse to go to sleepovers or school camps, and in more severe cases they might refuse to go to school or to be apart from their parent for any reason at all (including to go to sleep). This sort of behaviour usually comes from an intense and overwhelming fear that something bad will happen to the parent or the child while they’re apart and so they’ll never see each other again.

Interestingly, in FIFO families I’ve seen with this issue, the teen usually develops separation anxiety about the home parent, even if they also have fears about the parent who works away. I guess that’s because it’s simply impossible to not separate from a parent who regularly goes away for work. The parent who works away can sometimes feel upset and hurt that their teen seems to be so needy of the other parent. If you’re the parent who works away, try hard not to take your teen’s behaviour personally because it really isn’t intended that way.

In my experience, parents just don’t know how best to handle teenage anxiety and it very often raises their own levels of stress and anxiety, or memories of the angst of their own adolescence. This can lead to parents feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Parents can swing from being very understanding and reassuring of their teen’s anxious behaviour, to very harsh and intolerant (sometimes within the space of a few minutes).

At times parents get so fed up that they end up shouting and crying themselves. While this is totally understandable, it obviously isn’t helpful because it gives the teen the message that things really are out of control here. Anxiety is very frustrating to deal with, and it’s very hard for parents to know how best to help. It’s worth bearing in mind that your feelings of frustration and uncertainty are almost certainly happening for your teen as well. It’s scary and overwhelming stuff.

On a very positive note, anxiety is treatable. I enjoy helping clients with anxiety because it is very satisfying to watch clients gain control over anxiety that has taken over important parts of their lives. The treatment for anxiety is usually cognitive behavioural therapy, which involves looking at situations and thoughts about these situations that lead to anxiety.

On a less positive note, teenagers are often very reluctant to admit how much they’re struggling with anxiety, and even more reluctant to go along and see a psychologist. Psychologists and other mental health professionals understand this and that's why they have come up with some great online resources. There is no point stressing if your teen refuses to get help, but there’s also no need to give up because there are plenty of other things you can do:

Here are some tips:

  • Consider whether there are any obvious causes for your child’s anxious behaviour. Is he refusing to go out and socialise because of bullying in his social group? Or, has there been some serious illness or accident in the family that has led to her worrying about your wellbeing? Helping your teen problem-solve through any obvious causes is the first step.
  • Take your teen along to your GP for a full check up. Sometimes being low in certain minerals or vitamins can contribute to anxiety (like vitamin B12 for instance) so it’s always worth having this checked out.
  • Take the time to understand anxiety. There is a lot of information readily available online, so dedicate half a day or so to doing some research. Your teen will benefit if you help them to learn the skills to manage anxiety. Think of how you would help them with any other skills, like learning to read or ride a bike. 
  • Watch your own anxiety and get treatment if you need it. Very often, anxious kids have at least one anxious parent. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a fact. 
  • When considering whether or not to ‘push’ your teen to do something that causes them anxiety, bear in mind that anything that causes very high anxiety will probably do more harm than good. Anxiety does need to be faced though, so allowing your teen to avoid all anxiety-inducing events isn’t the answer either. The best strategy is to gently push your teen to take part in events or situations that cause mild to moderate anxiety, so they can master these one at a time. Think of an anxiety scale from 0-10, with 0 being no anxiety at all and 10 being unbearable anxiety. Support your teen to regularly face situations that are somewhere in the middle of their own anxiety scale. 
  • As I’ve said, adolescents don’t usually want to go and see a psychologist. You could consider going along and talking to a psychologist yourself, about your teen. The psychologist will be able to support you and suggest ways you can help your child manage anxiety in a few sessions. This approach can be very effective, as well as very reassuring for the parent. 
  • Another very useful approach is for your teen to take part in some online treatment. These programs have been developed by psychologists and other mental health professionals because we know that many people just don’t want to, or physically can’t, go and talk to a professional for treatment.

Resources:

Books:

The anxiety workbook for teens - a free, printable online workbook for teens and parents, by Ron Rappee, Ann Wignall, Susan Spence, Vanessa Cobham and Heidi Lyneham. 

Websites:


To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.


Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website www.angiewillcocks.com.