Tweens Teens & Twenties

Teach Teens to Navigate Nerves When Anxiety Strikes

By Christina Katz | Contributor

With so many kids afflicted with anxiety these days, parents are wise to discuss how to manage nerves with teens before anxiousness becomes a problem. This means starting conversations in late elementary school and throughout middle school, rather than waiting for high school.

Can you anxiety-proof your kids? Probably not completely, but you can teach your child the necessary and important life skills for navigating anxious feelings that are bound to crop up.

If your child begins to show signs of persistent anxiousness, don’t panic. This is your opportunity to spark an ongoing discussion about mood management. Have a talk while you take a walk outdoors or go for a drive. Without making a huge, dramatic deal about it, revisit the topic of managing emotional ups and downs frequently, so your child understands that he can and will learn to navigate challenging emotions (see sidebar for when to seek help).

As much as you may wish for a magic wand, you don’t have one you can wave that makes your child’s worries disappear.

And even if you did, you don’t want to dismiss or minimize your children’s anxiety when it crops up. You want to help your children manage the spectrum of emotions that emerge in everyday life. Try these anti-anxiety tips: 

Affirm nerves are normal. Wouldn’t life be dull if there was never anything to get anxious about? Of course it would. Talk to your child about facing, showing up for, and walking through life’s challenges and how all of this makes us stronger and more confident. You might be tempted to minimize challenges for an emotionally sensitive child, but confronting a steady, manageable flow of age-appropriate challenges is not only educational in the short run, it’s also healthy in the long run.

Teach self-soothing. Multi-sensory experiences can immediately shift a child out of a nervous mood: taking a bath, singing songs out loud, or exercising outdoors. Experiment with your child in low-pressure situations to discover tension-relieving activities to use later as needed. Get in the life-long habit of consciously lowering anxiousness and then redirecting attention in a more productive manner.

Let excitement feel scary. Is your child excited? Even healthy excitement can feel a little scary sometimes. Not knowing how things will turn out usually makes the heart rate go up and is part of the joy of living. We don’t get to control every outcome, which leads to suspense. So our job is to feel the excitement, show up, and put one foot in front of the other, whether things always go our way or not.

Pack three meals plus two protein snacks. Make sure your child is not suffering from low blood sugar, which can increase anxiety, by planning on three balanced meals daily plus two high-protein snacks like a granola bar or yogurt between meals. If your child shows signs of sugar lows, like shaky hands or emotional outbursts between meals, blood sugar might be an issue. Make a habit of grabbing a sandwich or a protein pack before a stressful event, no matter what the time of day.

Avoid sugar and caffeine. Avoid sodas and candy. Consider eliminating all foods with high fructose corn syrup from your family’s diet. If your child has food sensitivities or allergies, take steps to address them so foods don’t become an anxiety trigger. If sugar and caffeine are often consumed, let them follow meals so they don’t trigger a blood sugar roller coaster.

Accept personality quirks. Never assume your child can handle something simply because you would have been able to handle it or because your child’s siblings or friends can. Part of letting your child be an individual is not comparing her to others. After a challenging experience, ask her how she feels, rather than assuming how she should feel. Be interested in the ways your child experiences life differently from you and from others and support her individuality by validating the positivity in being unique.

Cheer them on. We have so many jobs as parents, but one of the most important jobs is the cheerleader role. Don’t take yourself so seriously as a grown-up that you can’t come down to your child’s level and say, “You can do it!” Your child needs you next to her, encouraging her, not scowling down from on high, fretting about outcomes. If you want your kids to be brave, don’t pressure them — cheer them on instead.

Weather disappointments.

As a parent, you must be able to see your child cry without over-reacting.

Teaching a child to avoid crying at all costs is like saying that experiencing disappointment or sadness makes them weak. When we teach kids to embrace challenging emotions, to dig deep and be honest so they can express feelings no matter how challenging in the moment, they become more resilient, empathetic citizens in the long run.

Reward bravery. We live in a fairly unpredictable world, so it’s a great idea to teach kids how to take healthy risks. Kids who learn to push themselves to achieve goals, like taking a more challenging class or trying out for a competitive sport, will have less energy to channel into risky or adrenaline-fueled behavior. A great end-of-the-week dinner topic for families is: who gets to wear an invisible crown of bravery? Reward the daring, rather than the results, and then kids will learn that courage is its own reward.

When to Seek Professional Help

No doubt you have gleaned from recent media reports that anxiety is on the rise among teens in our society. Some data suggests that ten percent of teens suffer from an anxiety disorder. Other data suggests the number is higher. Kids can experience anxiety for so many reasons. Most of us have experienced some degree of anxiousness in our lives, but for many parents, the crippling sense of distress and unease some teens feel is unfamiliar. Anxiety manifests at a range of intensity levels depending on the child and the circumstances, and just because a child experiences some anxiousness does not mean he has a disorder. However, stay on the safe side. 

If your child consistently displays the following symptoms, please consult a mental health professional.

1. Anxiousness to the point of headaches, stomachaches and tiredness with no other known physical cause.

2. Chronic sleeping problems including going to sleep, waking up or staying asleep.

3. Low self-esteem characterized by being excessively hard on the self for no logical reason.

4. Consistent excessive worry about everyday things like school, friends, grades, teachers, etc.

5. Avoiding school, withdrawing from friends, irritability with authority figures, successive high-highs and low-lows, use of substances, eating disorders or other self-destructive behaviors.

Editor’s Note: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.

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