Dealing with Stress and Anxiety
The next topic I'm going to focus on for teens is helping them handle stress and anxiety. (When I refer to stress, I mean that they are stressed about a specific situation, like a test or a situation with a friend. Anxiety tends to be more of a general worry about things they have to face. Supporting teens through their stress and anxiety uses similar tools, so I'm addressing them together.)
Before I start to give you tips, I'd like you think about this:
How are you currently responding to (or supporting) your teen when they're stressed or anxious? What works and what doesn't?
What type of support is helpful for YOU when you're stressed or anxious?
TIP FROM APRIL 16th:
What Causes Stress or Anxiety is Real to Them
One of the first things to recognize when it comes to teens and anxiety is that what worries them may seem very petty from our perspective. We may think they are overreacting because they’re upset over friends or boyfriends/girlfriends, or losing video games, or breaking a “streak” on Snapchat. (Yes, we wish they’d care that much about schoolwork or studying… but they often don’t. Unless your child is a perfectionist -- which, interestingly, is also related to an underlying anxiety.)
A big part of supporting teens through their stress and anxiety is taking their feelings seriously. What matters to them matters to them, no matter how we feel.
There is a quote that I love that is a great reminder of this. And this doesn’t just refer to young kids; it refers to teens as well:
“Telling a child that something that matters to them isn't important doesn't convince them it doesn't matter. It just convinces them that it doesn't matter to you and often makes them feel like they don't matter, either.”
If we want our kids to come to us with their stress and anxiety -- instead of coping with it in unhealthy ways -- we need to take them seriously. This doesn’t mean immediately jumping to fixing or problem-solving mode. (I’ll talk about that more in a later post.) It just means respecting what matters to them.
TIP FROM APRIL 19th:
Be Calm and Confident
I’m going to give you a couple of tips for how to reduce teens’ stress to begin with, but of course you want to know how to handle it in the moment when your child is freaking out.
Handling a teen (or anyone else) who’s stressed isn’t much different than handling any other behavior. You still want to use CALM, CONNECT, CORRECT.
For now, I’m going to focus on CALM.
Staying calm when kids are stressed or anxious is incredibly important because, for better or worse, they sense our energy and will be upset if they feel that we’re either upset or tuned out.
And many of us do get pulled right into their stress. They say they haven’t studied for a test and we immediately get angry or anxious ourselves. Or they tell us they’re worried about an upcoming game or an interaction with one of their friends, and we become as concerned as (if not more concerned than) they are.
On the other hand, to protect ourselves, some of us minimize how they feel. They tell us they’re worried about something and we tell them “Calm down, you’ll be fine” or “You have nothing to worry about.”
Both of these reactions only shut them down more. Instead, we simply have to let them have their feelings without trying to get them to stop. You don’t have to tell them you understand their feelings. If anything, show that you’re calm and confident by not saying anything at all.
If we want them to be able to handle it, we want to show them that we can handle it. Our confidence may not make everything better, but at least it won’t make it worse.
TIP FROM APRIL 22nd:
DON'T FIX OR SOLVE; EMPOWER THEM
In the last post I discussed that the first part of handling teens' stress or anxiety in the moment is to stay calm and in control of YOUR emotions. That means you don’t get pulled into their big emotions, but you don’t minimize their big emotions either.
In this way, you’re showing them that you can handle their feelings. If you DON’T do that first, their brain will see more “danger” and will stay stuck in stress or anxiety.
Once you’ve let them have their feelings without being drawn in, they are much more likely to be able to solve whatever problem they’re facing (whether it’s anxiety over a test, or a performance, or an issue with friends, etc.).
But here’s the key: YOU don’t have to solve that problem for them. In fact, jumping in and fixing is the opposite of what you want to do. First of all, jumping to problem-solving before they’re ready only makes them more anxious. Second of all, even if you come up with the best solution in the world for them, all you’ve taught them is that they need you around to solve the problems.
Empowering them is about asking them questions with a tone and cadence of CURIOSITY. You could say something like, “What do you think you’ll do about that?” or “What have you done in the past that’s worked?” (By the way, if they say “Nothing’s ever worked” or “There is NO solution," they’re still in Yuck and you need to wait until they’ve traveled the curve so they can re-access the rational, problem-solving part of the brain.)
IF they do need help finding solutions, you can still EMPOWER THEM. First, ask “Can I offer a suggestion?” (Even that question is empowering. And if they say no, they weren’t going to listen anyway!) Then say, “This is how I’d handle it… But I’m not you. What would you have to do to change my strategy to make it work for you?”
Ultimately, your goal is to empower them so that their brain sees they can handle hard things… and they won’t be as stressed/anxious in the future.
@Jesgould I'm so glad! Thanks for letting me know. Feedback really helps me know what direction to take.