How to Help Your Teen Cope with Feelings of Anxiety

Help teens learn to deal with anxiety. - Tetra Images / Getty Images
Tetra Images / Getty Images

It’s normal for everyone to experience anxiety sometimes. After all, anxiety is meant to keep people safe. Feelings of anxiety warn us when something is dangerous so we can take steps to keep ourselves safe. For example, our anxiety tells us to look both ways before we cross the road to prevent being hit by a car. If we didn’t have any anxiety at all, we’d likely step into traffic without ever looking up.

Sometimes, we experience anxiety when we aren't actually in any physical danger, however. Teens can be especially susceptible to huge spikes in their anxiety when dealing with their social lives. Whether it's pre-date jitters or anxiety about an upcoming presentation in history class, there are several steps you can take to help your teen learn healthy ways to deal with anxiety.

How Teens Handle Anxiety

Feelings of anxiety impact teens psychology as well as physically. A teen who feels nervous is likely to have a lot of anxious thoughts. For example, a teen who is worried about giving a presentation in class may imagine his classmates laughing at him or he may think he's going to forget everything he's supposed to say. Anxious thoughts continue to fuel anxious feelings. 

Anxiety also causes changes to a teen's body. A nervous teen may break out into a sweat or experience an increased heart rate. These physical symptoms can be embarrassing and can cause a teen to feel even more anxious.

Teens often struggle to cope with these distressing and uncomfortable feelings.

While one teen may try to act tough to mask his feelings feelings of anxiety, another teen may begin behaving in a silly manner as a way to distract himself from his emotions. 

The most common reaction to anxiety is avoidance. A teen who experiences anxiety when he doesn’t know how to do his math homework, may avoid opening his books when he gets home. Similarly, a teen who feels anxious about public speaking, may feign an illness to avoid giving a speech in class. In severe cases of anxiety, a teen may become withdrawn and isolated because facing the world is just too anxiety provoking.

Talk About Your Teen’s Feelings

If you suspect your teen is feeling anxious about something, gently bring it up in conversation by asking, "I wonder if you're feeling a little nervous about your grade?" Discuss how everyone feels anxious sometimes and validate your teen's feelings

Talking about fears can help alleviate them. Ask your teen about what specific things he feels worried about. It's common for fears to become exaggerated and irrational. For example, a teen may envision that everyone is going to laugh at him or that everything is going to go wrong.

Use reflective listening to show that you're trying to understand your teen's feelings and his worrisome thoughts. Help your teen recognize when his thinking is overly negative and discuss potential positive outcomes that he may not be considering. 

Problem-Solve Together

Teach your teen problem-solving skills so he can help reduce his anxiety. For example, a teen who is anxious that he’s going to fail science class could benefit from identifying  steps he could take to increase his chances of success. Seeking help after school, spending more time studying, and joining a study group might be just a few of the things that could help him pass his class and reduce his anxiety. Sometimes, teens need a little help identifying how to proactively address their problems.

Gently Encourage Your Teen to Face Fear Head-On

Since it's natural for teens to want to avoid things that cause them to feel anxious, they sometimes need extra encouragement to face their fears. While avoidance will reduce their anxiety now, over the long-term, avoidance leads to bigger problems and increased anxiety. Encourage your teen to do things that cause him to feel some mild anxiety – as long as they’re safe – because practice and exposure will decrease his anxiety over time.

Provide Positive Reinforcement

Whether your teen gives a speech despite his fear of public speaking or he invites a date to the dance even though he's terrified of rejection, praise his efforts. Provide positive reinforcement for his willingness to tolerate uncomfortable emotions when he's trying to reach his goals. 

Seek Professional Help When Necessary

Sometimes normal anxiety can turn into an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are treatable, but they usually require professional help. If your teen’s anxiety is interfering with his education, his relationships, or his everyday activities, talk to his doctor or consult with a mental health professional