Mary was feeling very proud of her 16-year-old son, David, as she backed out of the driveway to take him to his first day of work. But by the time they arrived at the garden center (where he had secured a summer job), David began to panic. "Mom, Mom, don't stop. Don't stop, please. I can't get out of the car and go into work. Really I can't! I'm having a heart attack."
Sure enough, he looked as though he might faint at any moment. His pupils were dilated, sweat formed on his brow, and his breathing was labored. As a mother Mary’s first instinct was to comfort her son, and for a moment she considered taking him home. Fortunately, she took a different approach."David. Listen to me. Listen carefully” she said firmly, but not unkindly. “You'll do just fine today. I know you are scared, but trust me, by the time your shift ends you will be glad you got out of the car. And you'll feel proud that you went to work."
David looked back at his mother with the pleading expression of one who has just been told he is being thrown into a pool of sharks. Clearly Mary's brief motivational talk had not moved the needle on her son's anxiety. In a barely audible whisper David said "Let's just go home mom.... please." Mary fought the urge to give in, and instead reached across the seat, unclipped her son's seat belt, and literally pushed David out of the car. "Go get em tiger! See you after work” she called out while driving away. Through the rear view mirror Mary watched her son walk slowly into the garden center, head down, shoulders slumped, looking like an escaped prisoner returning to his cell block.
Although the example above may seem extreme, it is similar to other stories I have frequently heard over the years from other teens and adults. Anxiety can be crippling. It steals the opportunities and joys of the present, and cast a dark shadow of fear over the future. The good news is that for most people anxiety can be effectively pushed back against. A happier life is within reach for nearly all who struggle with this problem.
By the way, although you might be thinking that this was a rocky start to a summer job, David went on to have a great experience working at the garden center. What is more, as he began to enjoy success in this new role as an employee, his confidence skyrocketed. But had his mother not been strong enough to insist that he face his fears, David would have remained shackled by his anxiety. Instead of building from one strength to another, and eventually going off to college as a happy high school graduate, he is likely to have remained a fearful young man feeling trapped by his worries.
What can parents do for teens who suffer from severe anxiety?
1. Be understanding of your teen's fears.
Let's start with the easiest thing you can do: never denigrate a youngster because his or her fears seem unfounded or foolish. I don’t want you to agree with your teen that his/her fear is realistic if it is not, but always approach the subject with kindness.
2. Be resolute in your insistence that your teen face his or her fears.
Most teens will want to avoid facing their fears. If this goes unchecked, the anxiety may never resolve. Parents act as a bulwark against the teen's chronic avoidance. When parents insist that a child face his or her fear, they are expressing confidence in their child’s abilities. But make sure that this is the message that comes across, not one of frustration and impatience that your teen has not yet conquered his or her anxiety.
Most teens do best when they gradually face their fears. You might think “That’s not the example you used with David.” What that brief story does not include is all the work that went into getting David to that point where the mother needed to provide the final shove toward the finish line.
3. After your teen has been working on overcoming anxiety, help him or her to remember what progress has been made.
Fighting back against anxiety is challenging. It is easy for a teen to feel that nothing he or she has tried has really helped. These feelings of defeat can arise even when clear progress is being made. Parents can provide perspective in these moments by sympathizing with how difficult the battle against anxiety can be, but also by providing reminders of the gains that have been won. By taking this approach you will fuel your teen's motivation to take the next step to overcoming anxiety.
4. Help your teen learn how to combat fear through slow deep breathing, meditation, exercise, etc.
Many books are available that provide examples of how to use these tactics to reduce anxiety (see ‘Tools You Can Use’). Most of these tools focus on learning how to physically relax when anxious (this reduces the physical sensations of anxiety), and how to gradually confront a variety of fears.
5. When anxiety stubbornly persists, when repeated efforts to overcome fear are met with setbacks, help your teen realize that it is time to work with a therapist.
Some teens will see this as a sign of weakness - parents need to reframe it as a sign of wisdom in knowing when to seek help. No different than finding a coach when practicing a sport and finding that a key skill cannot be learned on one own.
If you end up looking for a therapist try to find someone who has a wealth of experience working with anxious teens. Most importantly, you and your teen should feel comfortable with the counselor, and come away after the first or second meeting with a sense that this is someone who is understanding, genuinely cares, and with whom your teen 'connects.'
Anxiety does not need to be an ever-present shadow that haunts your child’s adolescence. Use the guidance above, the resources on this blog, or the help of a therapist, to get those fears under control.