4 Mistakes To Avoid When Helping Your Anxious Teen
by Dr. Tali Shenfield, Child Psychology and Parenting Blog
October 15, 2018

For parents and teens alike, adolescence is a nerve-wracking time. Given the succession of rapid physical and psychological changes teens go through, it’s understandable that they tend to be anxious and pensive from time to time. For some teens, however, this anxiety becomes chronic and even debilitating. If your teen is one of the 25% who live with an anxiety disorder, know that you—and your teen—are not alone. Though anxiety is challenging to live with, it can be managed.

Battling Teen Anxiety: What You Should (And Shouldn’t) Do
If your teen is struggling to socialize, attend school, and do other basic day-to-day things, you may feel as though her anxiety is slowly dominating both of your lives. Worse still, you likely feel powerless to help your teen and end her suffering. However, while it’s true that there is no panacea for anxiety, there are a number of things you can do to make it easier for your teen to cope. Rather than trying to “cure” your teen’s anxiety, help her learn to control it by not making the four common parenting mistakes below:

1. Being overly accommodating.
As a compassionate parent, you probably feel tempted to shelter your child from her anxiety. You may assume that if you can remove your child from triggering situations, the anxiety will cease. Many parents of anxious teenagers make this mistake: If their child is anxious about going to school, for example, they decide to homeschool her. Alas, while this approach may mitigate anxiety in the short term, it tends to make it worse over the long term. Why? When a parent does these things, he or she sends the message that yes, these situations are indeed intimidating and must be avoided.

This does not, of course, mean that you should take a relentless “tough love” approach with your teen. Not accommodating your teen at all will make her feel alone with her anxiety and this will only serve to magnify her fears. Instead, you will need to strike a balance: Teach your teen that it is okay to take “breaks” from stressful situations in order to regroup, but encourage her to tackle those situations again as soon as she feels able. Furthermore, you should work with a mental health professional to help your teen develop coping mechanisms she can use to manage stressful situations.

Finally, allow your teen to start small when tackling her anxiety. Overcoming a number of small challenges will build her confidence so that she may tackle larger hurdles.

2. Trying too hard to “fix” your teen’s problem with anxiety.
Some parents are incredibly proactive about combating their teen’s anxiety. They read every book available on the topic, participate in their child’s therapy sessions, and generally give 110% in hope of fixing the issue at hand. Unfortunately, while you may think these efforts convey caring, what your anxious teen probably feels is pressure: Pressure to get better, fast. Teens in this situation often “freeze up” because they develop a fear of failure. They may become slower to adopt the coping strategies they need, try to hide their anxiety rather than face it, or become overwhelmed and give up altogether.

While taking a supportive role may feel “passive” to you, it’s one of the best things you can do for your teen. Remember: Even though your teen is struggling with anxiety, she still needs to walk the path of adolescence. She needs to become more independent and learn how to empower herself, so you cannot fight her battles for her. All you can (and should) do is be her best ally and guide.

3. Misreading anxiety and making it something other than what it is.
If you were fortunate enough not to suffer from anxiety during adolescence, you may misunderstand your teen’s battle with it. You may, for instance, think that your teen is exaggerating her symptoms in order to get out of doing things she doesn’t enjoy. In reality, however, this is seldom the case—most teens loathe admitting that they’re vulnerable, so they’re unlikely to choose anxiety as an excuse. Assume your teen is telling the truth and proceed to treat the problem. (Few teens who are simply looking for an “excuse” will proceed with the complex process of anxiety treatment, after all.)

4. Trying to find “reasons” for your teen’s anxiety.
For those of us who don’t struggle with anxiety, fears are generally linked directly to causes. If a person without anxiety has a deep fear of dogs, for example, it can probably be traced back to a negative experience with a vicious dog during childhood. Chronically anxious people, on the other hand, often develop fears that lack an apparent cause. You should therefore avoid assuming that your child is being bullied, has experienced a trauma you were not aware of, etc. There may well be no environmental reason why your child is as anxious as she is. The causes of chronic anxiety are often purely genetic; as such, they are probably rooted in your teen’s unique brain chemistry.

How To Help Your Anxious Teen Cope
In addition to avoiding the four mistakes above and seeking professional help for your teen, there are a number of things you can do to help her cope with anxiety. You can provide resources (such as self-help books and videos), teach your teen coping strategies, and of course, you can always act as a supportive listener. While you cannot fight your teen’s anxiety for her, you can stand by her side as she takes on its myriad challenges. With your care and guidance, she will learn to identify her triggers, work through them in manageable steps, and ultimately become more confident. Though she may never fully “outgrow” her anxiety, with the right treatment, she will almost certainly learn how to minimize its impact on her life. Read more about the techniques for parenting children with anxiety here.