Having Trouble Talking to Your Troubled Teen?
“Don’t worry about it,” you might say to your anxious adolescent or teen. “It’s going to be OK,” you want to tell them. But they know better. It will not be OK. Your words may only confirm their worst fears, and they feel trapped inside a world they cannot control. You hate to see your child upset, and you want to help, but saying the wrong thing to a teen with an anxiety disorder can actually make them feel worse.
Your child may not have the coping skills to deal with anxiety, but they do know, all too well, what freaks them out. They learn early to recognize the triggers that might send them reeling into a full-blown panic attack. So it’s natural for teens to avoid those stressful situations as often as they can. If you want to open a dialogue with your teen that is productive, sometimes, the secret is knowing what not to say.
When your teen has an anxiety disorder, their extreme fear of being judged or rejected by others in social or school situations can be devastating. These behavior disorders can make life seem unbearable for young people, and the symptoms can disrupt daily life for their families, too. As Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, explains, while most parents want to help, what they say to their kids may actually make only intensify their fears.
Teen Anxiety Doesn’t Go Away With Reassurance
“So many of the things you might say end up having a paradoxical effect and make the anxiety worse,” Bea told The Huffington Post recently. “Anxiety can be like quicksand -the more you do to try to defuse the situation immediately, the deeper you sink. By telling people things like ‘stay calm,’ they can actually increase their sense of panic.”
A teenager that has been anxious since childhood has probably constructed an entire lifestyle around their anxieties. They may have trained their family, friends, and teachers to accept it, Bea says. That’s why it’s more difficult to treat anxiety the longer a child has lived with it. They have likely developed unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage it, and like a malfunctioning machine, they shut down when the system fails them.
6 Things You Should Never Say to Teens With Anxiety Disorders
Fortunately, there are ways to be supportive that won’t cause more distress for your teen or adolescent. Bea and other psychologists have developed, as a guideline, a list of comments that you should learn to avoid. They also offer suggestions for different approaches that might help you reduce your child’s anxiety. Here are 6 of their tips, with a ‘don’t’ and a ‘do’ for each.
- “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
The sad truth is that what you consider to be a little problem may not seem so small in someone else’s world. While you may be trying to insert a positive, upbeat message into a tense situation, you may be diminishing something that’s a much bigger deal to another person.
To fully understand someone, “You have to enter the person’s belief system,” Bea says. “For someone with anxiety, EVERYTHING is big stuff.” In order to help them, he recommends approaching the problem from a point of encouragement rather than telling them that they just need to “buck up” over something small.
You might remind your teen that they were able to handle this panic-producing moment in an earlier situation. This can help you validate their feelings, show them that you understand that the pain they are experiencing is real, and help them push beyond those overwhelming feelings.
- “Calm down.”
Teens that are struggling with anxiety and panic disorders aren’t able to simply calm down instantly. The ability to immediately relax, on command, isn’t something most resilient adults can do, so it would certainly be even more difficult for someone that is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Even though you have good intentions, telling someone to calm down will probably have the opposite effect. If they were able to halt their anxiety, they would have already done it.
The right words aren’t always the answer. According to Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, even the best well-chosen words don’t always work. Offering to do something nonthreatening with your teen could be the best way to help alleviate the pain of their symptoms. Humphreys says activities like meditating, going for a walk outdoors, or working out may be more effective in the long run.
- “Just do it.”
When someone with anxiety is attempting to face their fears head on, giving them some “tough love” may not produce the effect you’re hoping for. Depending on the type of phobia or disorder your child may be dealing with, panic can strike them suddenly at anytime -when they have to board an airplane, or speak before a group of people, or it could just pop up out of nowhere. “Obviously if they could overcome this they would because it would be more pleasant,” Humphreys says. “No one chooses to have anxiety. Using these phrases makes them feel defensive and unsupported.”
Instead of telling your teen to “buck up,” practicing empathy is the key. Humphreys recommends changing pep-talk language to sentences like “that’s a terrible way to feel” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Humphreys says, “The paradox is, an empathetic phrase helps them calm down because they don’t feel like they have to fight for their anxiety. It shows some understanding.”
- “Everything is going to be fine.”
While this sounds supportive, Bea says that teens struggling with anxiety won’t usually react to the comforting words in the way that you might hope. “Unfortunately, telling someone who is dealing with anxiety that ‘everything is going to be alright’ won’t do much, because nobody is going to believe it,” he explains. “Reassurance sometimes can be a bad method. It makes them feel better for 20 seconds and then doubt can creep in again.”
Bea suggests that you try to be encouraging, rather than resort to using standard blanket statements that may not offer any real value to the situation. Sometimes, if you allow your child to acknowledge their worry, it can be a big help. “They can always accept the condition,” Bea explains. “Encouraging them that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling, that can be a pretty good fix as well.”
- “I’m stressed out too.”
You may be trying to relate, but this is similar to the failure of the “calm down” and “don’t sweat the small stuff” tactic. You may accidentally trivialize someone’s dilemma by creating a comparison. If you are stressed out, or suffering from an anxiety or panic disorder yourself, Humphreys warns that sharing your point of view with your kid can be dangerous. “It’s important not to obsess with each other,” Humphreys says. “If you have two people who are anxious, they may feed off each other. If people have trouble controlling their own anxiety, try not to engage in that activity even if you think it might help.”
Research has demonstrated that stress can be a contagious emotion. A recent study by the University of California San Francisco discovered that newborn babies can absorb negative feelings from their mothers. To encourage healthier thinking, the research suggests that changing the conversation instead of commiserating can be more uplifting.
- “Have a drink, it’ll take your mind off of it.”
A favorite soft drink might be a welcome distraction for an adolescent or teen, but when you are dealing with anxiety disorders, there are other issues to consider. Caffeine in soda pop or coffee, and other stimulants, found in popular energy drinks, can have the opposite effect. Humphreys says most people assume that if someone has a refreshing beverage it will take their anxiety away. “In the short term, yes, perhaps it will, but in the long term it can be a gateway for addiction. It’s dangerous in the long term because those substances can be reinforcing the anxiety.”
Sometimes, doing nothing for your teen is best thing you can do. Humphreys stresses that it’s important to remember panic and anxiety disorders stem from something larger than just one particular or minor instance. “Accept that you cannot control another person’s emotions,” he explains. “If you try to control their emotions, you will feel frustrated, your loved one suffering may feel rejected and you’ll resent each other. It’s important not to take their anxiety personally.”
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Mood Disorders and Teenage Girls, by Ron J. Steingard, MD. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
Huffington Post: 7 Things You Shouldn’t Say To Someone With Anxiety, by Lindsay Holmes. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Social Anxiety Disorder. Retrieved September 5, 2016.