Parenting: How To Parent Your Anxious Teen

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Anxiety In Teens: What You Can Do To Help

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

In teens, anxiety can go hand in hand with irritability and agitated outbursts. No parent likes to see their child struggle so it can be tempting to ignore uncharacteristic rudeness to keep the peace and avoid a confrontation, but when your child isn’t coping sometimes the worst thing you can do is give them too much leeway. Your instincts may tell you to be more flexible and let rudeness or oppositional behaviour go so you don’t upset your child further, but being too flexible can actually increase your child’s distress. Consistent boundaries make a child’s environment predictable, and predictability is what helps kids and teens to feel safe and contained. Relaxing boundaries creates an unpredictable environment which can actually escalate rather than de-escalate your child’s distress.

Does your teen use outbursts to tell you they're anxious?

Does your teen use outbursts to tell you they’re anxious?

While reward charts and positive praise work well with younger children, teens often aren’t as interested in “facing their fears” to overcome their anxiety. A different approach is needed. It may seem harsh, but when your child’s anxiety is interfering with their day to day routines and they aren’t motivated by incentives you may need to draw on consequences, not as a punishment, but as a motivator.

When we feel anxious we want to avoid whatever it is that’s making us feel that way. Avoidance offers short-term relief from anxiety but it’s not a long-term solution and it unfortunately makes things worse. The longer we avoid something the bigger the issue becomes in our head, and the more anxious we feel about it. The solution? Gradually facing up to whatever it is that’s making us feel anxious.

If you use consequences to encourage your child to face their anxiety the consequence, like any reward, needs to be meaningful enough to outweigh the intensity of your child’s anxiety. If the consequence isn’t meaningful to your child they’ll choose to endure the consequence rather than confront the situation triggering their anxiety. The first time your child confronts their feared situation, they’ll feel anxious and uncomfortable, but with practice your child’s anxiety should lessen as they learn that they can cope and that the situation isn’t as bad as they predicted it would be.

As a parent it can be hard to encourage your child to do something that you know is going to make them anxious, but watching your child struggle with anxiety for the rest of their lives will be harder. When you feel yourself relenting keep this in mind – your child will continue to experience anxiety regardless of whether you intervene or not but its wasteful anxiety; it serves no other purpose than to make your child feel awful. The anxiety your child experiences when they confront anxiety provoking situations is productive anxiety, it’s a stepping stone towards your child being rid of anxiety for good.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.