Anxiety in a teen can show up in many different ways. One symptom of anxiety you may see is agitation. When a teen feels overwhelmed or stressed they may become closed off and resistant to discussing their feelings.
Another common sign of anxiety for a teen is to "shut down". The feeling of anxiety maybe causing your teen to no longer be interested in things they used to enjoy or is struggling more in school.
One type of anxiety within teens is social anxiety in which they feel nervous when in a group setting or a crowded space. There are many different types of anxieties and each person may show different symptoms.
If you notice your teen is acting out, bottling up their emotions, or is having difficulty in social interactions then you may want to reach out to a mental health professional for help.
1. Empower Your Teenager
As a parent, you should empower your kids to help them grow in a positive way. Your goal should not be to keep them from doing things they enjoy or to limit them. An example is when your teen wants to go out with friends. There comes a time in which you should let your teen go out with friends and have fun. If you are too worried about keeping them "safe" at all times, then they will not experience life for themselves. Keeping them inside your home will actually increase anxiety in your teen. If you model to your kids that the world is unsafe all around you then your teen will become increasingly worried, anxious, and depressed that they cannot leave the home and nowhere is safe. I suggest that you come up with a plan with your teen that will work for the both of you. You may feel more comfortable if they go out with only friends you have met before and/or to have them text or call on a regular basis when they are out to let you know that they are okay.
2. Don't Reinforce Avoidance
When someone has anxiety, that person will avoid whatever they feel will cause anxiety. An example is that someone will feel anxious when they ride a crowded subway train, therefore they avoid taking the train. Another example is with someone who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and feels they need to do specific actions in order to feel less anxious. This may be unlocking and relocking the front door 16 times until they feel satisfied and the anxious feeling goes away. As a parent, it may feel like you are helping your teen by accommodating their symptoms of anxiety/OCD but this will actually increase the anxiety and make it worse. It is admirable that you are willing to go out of your way to make special accommodations to help your child. Something you may do is avoid taking the trains while with your child if they are anxious about going on it. But this actually reinforces to your teen that the train is a scary, unsafe place and feeds into their anxiety. You know this hasn't helped so far because your teen is not getting better- they are becoming more and more anxious. What will help your anxious teen the most is to actually help them face their fears. But go slow with it and be careful since anxiety is a real mental health disorder and if not treated properly it can get worse. If someone is pushed too fast and too far then it could cause frightening panic attacks. If you feel any big changes will cause your teen to have a meltdown or panic attack, it may be best to reach out to a mental health professional to take the necessary steps together as a team.
3. Do Not Take Away Social activities As a Discipline
As a teenager, this is an important age to socialize and develop those important people skills. If your teen does a negative action and you decide to discipline them, I ask that you do not take away their socialization with others. It is vital to a teen's developmental stage to have fun and play. This helps both sides of their brain to develop as it should. If you keep your teen inside and away from socializing with others, then it will cause them to have an imbalance in their developing brain and can cause problems later in life. Socializing and having fun will help your teen communicate with others, talk to you more openly, and they will make more eye contact.
4. Limit Screen Time
Nowadays most teens have a cell phone, computer, iPad, etc. During teen years it is important that your child continues to socialize with others face-to-face and that they go out to play. Your teen should not be spending all of their time facing a screen. As parents, you have to make the decision about how many hours of screen time there should be. Once you make this rule for the home though, you have to stick to it as well. This means you cannot have your phone out during dinner and be emailing or texting on it if your teen is not allowed to do the same. You have to practice what you preach. So make a house rule that even you could follow too.
You can also "lease" your teen's phone, video games, etc. for a certain amount of hours when they're home. Therefore, the cellphone belongs to you as a parent, but you are leasing it to your teen certain times of the day. Your teen can be leased the phone for a longer amount of time if they were good that day and maybe for less time if they did not do as they were supposed to that day.
5. Limit Social Media
You also want to set a limit on social media. Social media creates false self-esteem. Teens post their thoughts, photos of themselves, etc. and their self worth is dependent on how many "likes" they receive. This leads to a temporary good feeling, but is not real. Their real self-worth is not actually based on how many likes they have on their social media accounts. It will be how they interact with others at school and who will spend time with them outside of school. I do think teens can have social media accounts, but there should be clear and strict guidelines on how they can use them and what types of things they can and cannot post.
When your teen is starting out on social media, you may want them to use your social media account or limit which social media accounts they can open. If you are reading this and are thinking you want to limit your teen's social media use, then you should take baby steps. Do not just take away all of their accounts at once or worse- take away their phone and electronics. You want to sit down and discuss what's a healthy amount of time that should be used on social media and gradually you have them use it less and less. In exchange, they can get rewarded in some way such as spending more time with friends outside of school.
6. Never Take Items Out Of A Teens Hand
Let's say you create or have rules in your home and your teen does not follow them. You should have certain disciplines in place so that they know if they go against your rules, a certain consequence will happen. This will hopefully lead to less times they break the rules in the future. Let's say you discipline your teen by deciding to take away their cellphone for the rest of the day. That is fine if that is what you decide is appropriate for the magnitude of the problem. I just ask that you do not take their phone, or any other item, out of your teen's hand. This will cause your teen to feel disrespected, angry, etc. You will want to wait until your teen leaves their phone unattended, which they will, and you can take it away at that time.
Listed above are just some ways in which you can help your anxious teen. To summarize, do not feed into their anxious fears by helping them avoid certain things. You want to reinforce and model that it is okay and safe to do certain things. Remember, the more you accommodate the anxiety, the bigger the anxiety grows.
If you are able to get your teen to see a mental health therapist or counselor to help your teen through their anxiety, then this can ensure less problems for them in the future.
It is complicated disciplining any child, but an anxious teen can be more challenging. I suggest you sit down with your teen and create a plan together. It will then be your job to follow through with the discipline so that your teen learns what behaviors to change or what rules are important to follow.
Courtney Glashow, LCSW
is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in Hoboken, New Jersey. She specializes in teen and young adult counseling. Courtney can help NY or NJ residents through telehealth therapy sessions as well.