How to Talk About Teen Angst
It can be stressful for parents too. One psychologist (and mom) explains the many shades of adolescent anxiety—and how to help an apprehensive kid.
On the day of my older daughter’s eighth-grade dance, she was a bundle of nerves. “I can’t go,” she said in a panic. “What if I get there and my friends have changed their minds and don’t show up?” While her worries made zero sense to me—I knew full well that her friends would be at the dance and that they’d be eager to see her—they felt very real to her. In fact, she was so wound up that I almost told her she could stay home. I even started thinking about how we could find another occasion for her to wear the cute sky-blue dress she’d had a blast picking out the previous weekend.
Luckily, my training as a psychologist kicked in before I let her off the hook. There aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules in my field, but here’s one: Avoidance feeds anxiety. When we (or our kids) dodge something scary, we usually feel better right away. Down the line, how-ever, we go on to feel worse. Avoiding what we fear—whether it’s an eighth-grade dance or an SAT practice test—provides an immediate and powerful sense of relief. But when we back away from something we find threatening, we never get a chance to find out that, in reality, it isn’t so bad after all.
Remembering this, I reached for my psychologist hat and placed it on top of my mom hat. And with only three hours to go, I got down to the business of helping my girl get her nerves in check and find the courage to head to the dance.
What’s Typical Anxiety— and What Isn’t?
While my daughter was worrying, I wasn’t. I know that it’s normal, even helpful, for teenagers (and adults!) to get anxious—even really anxious—from time to time. For example, feeling nervous about being underprepared for a test pushes teens to crack their books and study. The healthy kind of anxiety serves to warn us when something might actually be wrong.
We only diagnose anxiety disorders when this alarm system breaks, going off even if it shouldn’t. For example, social anxiety disorder causes an emotional siren to blare month after month over minor interactions, like answering a question in class. In generalized anxiety disorder, a teenager might be dogged by constant worrying—perhaps fearing that there won’t be anyone to sit with at lunch, or that they’ll miss the bus home—even though everything is really OK.
And panic disorder involves an overwhelming surge of anxiety—a panic attack—so terrifying it prompts people to change their routines to avoid having another one. This is what happened to a client of mine who refused to return to her school gym after having a panic attack in phys ed class.
Although anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem among young people—just over 30% of teens will receive an anxiety diagnosis in any given year—I’m glad to say that most of the anxiety our kids experience is the healthy and normal kind.
Rethinking Can Help
“You know,” I said to my daughter, “you’re supposed to be feeling anxious and excited about things that are a big deal, and your eighth-grade dance is kind of a big deal.” Many of today’s kids assume that something must be wrong if they ever feel worried or tense. So it’s worth explaining to them that it’s a good thing to be a little revved before stepping onstage or asking their crush out. Getting keyed up helps us stay on our toes and take on challenges more effectively than we would if we were feeling totally mellow.
No less important, anxiety also helps to keep teens safe. As I say to the young people I care for in my practice, “If you feel uneasy at a party, tune in to that emotion. That just might be your anxiety telling you that things are headed in the wrong direction and you’re better off going home.” When we let our kids know that their nerves serve a purpose, we can keep them from getting anxious about being anxious.
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Think back for a minute to when your teenager was a toddler: When she fell, she often looked to you to gauge your reaction before deciding whether to cry. You knew that if you freaked out, she would too. But instead you scooped her up and said, “You’re OK. Let’s go inside and get cleaned up.” Teenagers, like toddlers, look to their parents to see how worried they should be about whatever life throws at them. We need to take their concerns seriously while also making it clear that things are going to come out all right.
And so I said to my daughter, “I know you’re feeling nervous, but my hunch is that once you get to the dance, you’ll find your friends and be really glad that you didn’t spend a boring evening with me and Dad.” I worked to convey a sense of quiet confidence as I told her this, because I knew that how I said this was maybe even more important than my exact words. Indeed, when it comes to helping our teenagers feel brave, our tune—the tone of voice, the assurance that comes through—can matter more than the lyrics. If we don’t really believe that things are going to work out, our teenagers likely won’t believe it either.
Trying on Real-Life Outcomes
Sometimes teenagers just need a re-minder that any scenario has more than two possible outcomes: exactly what they want—and complete disaster. If your son is worried he’s going to fail his driver’s test or your daughter is worried she’ll bomb a job interview, go ahead and say with confidence, “Well, that would be a bummer, but that’s something I know you can handle.” Assuring young people that they can deal with the disappointments and frustrations that come with life, even if they really don’t want to, helps them feel more at ease with the inevitable bumps that come everyone’s way.
You could also try playing a round of “Worst-Case Scenario.” While being laid-back about it, I said to my daughter, “What if you do get to the dance and can’t find your friends? What would happen then?” Imagining the worst (especially with the problem-solving support of a parent), can help teenagers figure out how they’ll get themselves back on track.
Remember: Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
Dealing with an anxious kid, even one facing garden-variety worries, can really take it out of you. It’s never easy to be calm and reassuring when your teenager is spinning—and it’s especially hard on days when your own nerves are frayed. Parents help set the emotional tone at home, so in order to take good care of your teen, you need to take good care of yourself. Start by paying attention to how anxious you feel on a regular basis. If you’re spending a lot of time at your own emotional limit, make it a priority to give yourself the downtime, sleep, healthy food and exercise we all need in order to function.
When you’re feeling steady, you’re less likely to overreact when your daughter tells you she missed the PSAT because her nerves made her dizzy. While you want to take something like that seriously—perhaps she had a panic attack—you don’t want to react so strongly that you scare your daughter or leave her feeling like she’s broken. Even panic attacks aren’t all that unusual, and they only turn into a problem if they happen repeatedly and cause your teen to limit activities.
This you-first oxygen mask approach will keep you from feeling overwhelmed at moments when you need to help your kid. But don’t worry if you sometimes blow it. Parents don’t need to be placid Zen masters (in fact, it would be pretty weird if we were). When you lose your composure with your stressed-out teenager, give it a real-world spin. Try saying, “Hey, I’m sorry I flipped out when you told me about missing your PSAT—I know that wasn’t helpful. I sometimes get overwhelmed myself. But I’ve got my perspective back now. Are you up for thinking about how to make this right?”
Anxiety in Daughters vs Sons
Daughters and sons both get nervous, but girls suffer from intense anxiety about twice as often as boys. Although we don’t fully understand why girls are more likely than boys to become anxious, psychologists have long known that upset girls tend to collapse in on themselves, while upset boys are more likely to let us know they are suffering by acting out and getting themselves in trouble.
It’s also true that our daughters may be more inclined to talk about their feelings than our sons. This can be a good thing, because knowing more about what’s going on means we’re often better able to help them. But mulling over problems too much—“ruminating,” as psychologists call it—can sometimes make things worse. Indeed, boys who are feeling uneasy are more likely than girls to look for a distraction (say, playing video games), not a discussion. This means that guys don’t always get the support they need, but they do often feel better faster.
If you get the sense that discussing your daughter’s concerns in detail is only adding to them, try to take a break. (Had my daughter continued to fret about the dance, I would have asked her to help figure out some details for her little sister’s birthday party.) And if you have a hunch that your son is feeling anxious but (in classic boy style) is being tight-lipped, ask if he’s nervous or wound up. He might not cop to it, but your checking in can reassure him that his feelings are normal and that he doesn’t have to deal with them alone.
Teenagers don’t always tell their parents when they’re tense, but you might suspect your kid is feeling anxious if he or she is having trouble sleeping, doesn’t feel well physically, seems unusually cranky or becomes reluctant to try anything new. Most of the time, kids find their way back to feeling good on their own, which is something we want them to learn to do. But if your son or daughter seems to feel crummy for several days in a row, you’ll want to find out more about what’s wrong.
When to Worry About Worrying
While anxiety is usually a normal and healthy emotional response, it sometimes gets out of hand. Your kid’s nervous reactions might consistently seem way too big for what triggered them, or your teen might always seem anxious for no clear reason. If, say, for months on end your child refuses to visit with friendly relatives or, out of embarrassment, order his or her own food at a restaurant, the behavior may have crossed the line into social anxiety disorder. Consult with your family physician or a mental health expert about how to help. Here’s the good news: We have many effective treatments for anxiety, ranging from talk therapy to medication. Getting professional help should make a real, positive difference.
Growing up isn’t easy. The basic demands of going to school and maintaining friendships can give kids plenty to feel stressed about even when everything is going great. Helping teenagers appreciate that anxiety is an expected and sometimes protective part of life reassures them that it’s OK to feel tense occasionally. And when our kids don’t mind getting a little anxious, they can better enjoy the fun parts of being a teen—like going to the dance. The selfies my daughter took with her friends that night still make both of us smile.
About our expert
Psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, lives in Shaker Heights, OH, with her husband and their two daughters. She is the author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls and Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.