How to Help a Stressed & Anxious Teenager

How to Help a stressed and anxious teenager

Takeaway: Use the following 3-step process to help your teenager. (1) Recognise signs that she’s stressed and anxious, (2) Identify what’s triggered her, and (3) Teach her the right coping strategies. For more deep-rooted issues, consider consulting a specialist.  

Stress isn’t always a bad thing. But too much of it, for too long is a problem.

Think of stress as the body’s way of preparing for a challenge. It gives us a boost of energy and attention which helps us perform well. It becomes a problem only when it goes on for too long and your child doesn’t have the right coping strategies. The mental strain of this pandemic is a perfect example. For instance, in January 2021, YoungMinds (the charity fighting for children’s mental health) surveyed 2,438 young people aged 13-25 about the pandemic and lockdown. These teens and young adults shared how the 2nd lockdown was much harder than the first, and how this extended period of stress was breaking them down. Many reported increased anxiety, panic attacks, and loss of hope for the future, and felt that the pandemic would likely have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

To help your teenager, first learn to spot the signs that something is wrong.

Here are four ways in which problems usually start to surface.

  • Changes in behaviour. Does your child seem more anxious? Or more aggressive than usual? Is she withdrawing from life — perhaps, refusing to go to school or spend time with her friends? Have her sleeping patterns changed? What about her appetite? Is she eating less than usual? Or perhaps she’s begun binging on comfort food?
  • Volatile emotions. Have you noticed her emotions being all over the place? For example, is she happy one minute and upset or sad the next? Is she complaining that everything is going wrong or that there’s no hope that things will get better? Does she seem to find it harder than usual to relax?
  • Physical issues. Is she falling ill often? For example, does she get headaches, tummy troubles, colds, etc., more often than usual? Does she have panic attacks? Does she regularly get light-headed and/or winded? Have you noticed unusual changes in her weight? Or in her menstrual cycle?
  • Problems focussing. Does she find it hard to concentrate, especially on schoolwork? Perhaps she’s less organised than usual? Or spends ages trying to make even simple decisions?

Once you’ve noticed there’s a problem, you’ll need to figure out what caused it.

Pay extra attention to your child’s life and try and really listen when she talks. You might be able to pick up some cues about what’s bothering her. Here are some common triggers.

1. External triggers: Most problems have a tangible, external source.

These are some real-world problems that your child might need help solving. For example:

  • Worrying world events like the pandemic that can play on her mind. This becomes all the more relevant with rolling news that overwhelms us with a constant stream of information.
  • Social isolation wreaks havoc on all our minds, and it’s worse for our children. Teenagers in particular rely so much on their social life to give them identity, so being cut off can be extremely damaging.
  • Relationship problems. Your child’s friends are her tribe, so if there are rifts in her relationships, it’ll affect her wellbeing. Then, there are romantic relationships to navigate, and these can eat away at them, too. Finally, there are the other usual suspects: peer pressure, bullying, and trouble ‘fitting in’.
  • Academic stress can take its toll, too. For example, if your child struggles in class, this can be damaging for her self-esteem. And if she’s a great student, she might set herself tough academic goals or fixate on performing well to impress you and her teachers.
  • Complicated family dynamics. Have there been any major changes in your family? For example, more arguing than usual? A separation? Illness or financial troubles? A death? All of these can affect your child’s peace of mind.

2. Internal triggers: Our thoughts and perceptions can add to problems or make them better.

Cognitive psychology teaches us that ‘thinking errors’ can make a tough situation seem much worse than it is. For example, to say that lockdowns are horrible would be an exaggeration. They’re certainly unpleasant and highly inconveniencing, but come with positives, too (e.g., time with family, a chance to break bad habits and start good ones, etc.). If your child hasn’t learned to appreciate nuances like this (i.e., if she sees life as black or white, with no ‘greys’), then her thoughts will unnecessarily trigger more stress than they need to. [To clarify, reevaluating our thoughts is not about trying to trick ourselves into ‘thinking positive’. Rather, it’s about being more exact in how we frame our perceptions.]

Depending on the trigger you identify, you can offer your teenager the right set of mental and emotional tools.

Here’s a general blueprint to follow.

1. Help her realise that she’s stressed and anxious.

Many teens feel down without quite realising it. You can tactfully point out what you’ve observed, without making a big deal of it or assigning blame. For example, you might say, “You seem a bit angry after that Zoom call. Did something happen?” Feelings are easier to handle when we have a label for them. And even if she doesn’t want to talk about it, you’ve nudged her in the right direction.

2. Acknowledge what she’s feeling and respect her emotional reaction.

Once you’ve helped her notice a feeling, it’s equally important to allow her to experience it fully. So, if she’s lonely being cooped up at home, try not to jump straight into problem-solving mode. It’ll be counterproductive to say, “You know you’re being a bit melodramatic, right? You can always call your friends up and chat.” Even if this is true, the message you’re sending is that she’s being silly. And no-one likes being told that. Instead, you could say something like, “I know what you mean. I feel really lonely too from time to time.” You would next move on to coming up with a solution, but let this acknowledgement sit for a bit. It’s a way of respecting and validating the emotional journey she’s going through.

3. Show her how thoughts can make a situation seem worse than it is.

Once you’ve let her speak her mind and have an emotional reaction, introduce the idea that what’s making her unhappy are the thoughts she has about whatever just happened. So, if she finds out that she has to stay home for longer than she anticipated, ask her what that means to her. You might say, “If that happened to me, I’d feel sad because it means I’ll have to be lonely for longer. Is that how you feel?” You could then help her see that the prediction that she’ll be lonely for longer is really just an assumption. Maybe there are things she could do to combat the loneliness? Learning to redirect her thoughts will help her build mental strength.

4. Guide her in brainstorming solutions to her problem.

Now that you’ve led her down a more constructive path and defined a solvable problem, help her brainstorm solutions. For example, if she’s feeling lonely, maybe she can set up a standing appointment to virtual-chat with a friend — even if she’s not in the mood? (This way, there’s something for her to look forward to, and a way to mark time.) Brainstorming can be a fun, creative exercise, and you’ll likely find her taking over the session once she’s got going.

5. Help her make lifestyle changes to boost her capacity to problem-solve.

More than just solving the immediate problem, you want to set your child up with the endurance to address other problems that might pop up. And for this, she’ll need a well-planned routine with common-sense habits to boost her energy levels and problem-solving capacity. Here are some basic things she’ll need to prioritise.

  • Daily physical activity. Regular exercise can help lower cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and burn off excess energy. The trick is to find something your child loves doing. Have her experiment with a range of activities to find a good fit. For example, jogging, cycling, callisthenics, dance, etc. And remember, you don’t need much space for a good workout. Even if your teen is stuck at home, there are many 10-minute workouts that don’t require any special equipment.
  • Staying connected with her social circle. As her stress and anxiety levels increase, she’ll likely feel like withdrawing from life. Remind her that her social connections can work magic in helping her feel better. Spend quality time with her, giving her your complete attention. And encourage her to set up social time with her friends. If she’s stuck at home, don’t underestimate the power of video calls. Sure, they don’t feel as good as real-life interactions, but they do For example, she and her friends can put on some music and have a sing-along, set up a fun quiz session, schedule an online Netflix party, or even have a virtual cook-off.
  • Prioritising sleep. Most teenagers prefer to sleep late and wake up late, even if it isn’t good for them. Instead, try getting your child to sleep early, skip daytime naps (or nap for 20 minutes at most), and avoid caffeine in the evenings.
  • Eating nutritious food. Make sure your child gets lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, adequate protein and grains, and healthy fats. Remember that teenagers go through significant physical changes, so your child might start needing more food than usual. Rather than limiting how much she eats, teach her to eat mindfully with no distractions. That way she’ll learn to trust her intuition and appetite.

Some types of stress and anxiety are a sign of deeper issues. If that’s the case with your child, consider consulting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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