Before Lena began high school last year, everything was so new and scary to her; she worried about small things like where her classes were, if her teachers were nice, if she would be in class with her friends or if she would have to make new ones. As if these things weren't enough of a bother, now she worries over how the transition back into life post-quarantine would go, considering the social distancing and mask regulations that may or may not be enforced by her school, as well as the constant fear of wondering who has the virus and if she will get infected simply by going to her classes. She is also concerned about the racial injustice and protests going on across America, police reform etc.
These concerns are totally understandable; however she let thoughts like these consume her mind, drawing her attention away from her day-to-day life. She has difficulty staying in the present moment and is constantly asking herself "what if?" types of questions. She also has difficulty sleeping and her appetite has decreased substantially due to frequent stomach aches.
Her mother, Jenna, wondered how best she could help. Besides actively listening to all Lena's fears and concerns she didn't know what else to do to help her daughter find solutions to her anxiety.
Teenagers like Lena exist everywhere, even if they may not show it. Anxiety rates in teenagers have seen a steady incline over the last twenty years. This raises questions such as: What has influenced this steep increase in anxiety levels? How can teenagers develop better ways to cope? What can parents do to help? These are some reasons why we may be seeing an increase in the past two decades and especially now:
- High societal expectations. Societal expectations have been at an all time high in recent years. The amount of pressure put on today's teens to excel in things like standardized testing and performing well in all of their classes- especially with college in mind. Imagining everything they have to live up to in order to 'succeed' will eventually start to weigh on them, giving them an underlying stressor their entire teenage and young adult life.
- Social media. It's no coincidence that social media usage and anxiety rates in teens have both seen an increase in the past two decades. It is likely the two work hand in hand, as kids grow up learning how best to interact through a screen as opposed to face-to-face experiences, thus cultivating a space for social anxiety to blossom. Additionally, apps like Instagram and Snapchat are used to showcase everyone's lives at their best, which leads to a constant comparison between each other.
- The world is utterly unknown, constantly changing, and scary. In recent years, the United States has seen an increase in mass shootings, school shootings, terrorist attacks etc. likely causing some hidden stress in children and young adults when it comes to public places like the mall or school. Now we have a major health crisis to deal with.
- COVID-19. The global pandemic has been incredibly hard on everyone as a whole, let alone those suffering from anxiety. The fear of the infection itself, being infected and spreading it to loved ones, the fact that we don't know all that much about it except that it's highly-contagious, etc... All of these things loom our minds daily, and can make those suffering from anxiety feel as though the whole world is coming crashing down on them.
- Black Lives Matter Movement. Due to recent tragedies regarding racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter Movement, the world has seen an insurgence of racial protests across the nation and throughout the world. It has been portrayed and reiterated through social media, news articles, and other online resources as the need for social change and racial justice. Right now, things are especially hard for black people and people of color, taking a toll on their own mental health and anxiety based on fear of being judged by the color of their skin. It is important to be aware of what our children are hearing and seeing on this topic and to have hard conversations in the home to both educate each other, and remind each other that each of us are so loved and valued.
Here are some ways parents can help:
- Listen to your teen. Don't dismiss their fears and tell them they have nothing to worry about. Be supportive by showing empathy and validating their feelings without judgement. Ask them how you could help and what they need from you.
- Set an example. If you are anxious or worried about something show your teen effective ways to cope such as deep breathing, meditating, listening to soothing music, exercising etc. Regulating your own emotions by practicing positive self-soothing strategies can be helpful for both of you.
- Be mindful of the expectations you set on your children. Expectations set by society are well out of your hands; however, the expectations you set for your child as an individual can weigh on them just as much. Of course, it's perfectly OK to set realistic expectations for your children; we're their parents, we want what's best for them. At the same time, staying conscious of these expectations and the ways in which they affect your child is so important.
- Discuss social media and its use. This doesn't necessarily mean to limit the amount of time they can spend on their phones, or what apps they can and can't use, although that can definitely be a path you explore if that's what works for you. What this means is just to discuss with your teen social media, the purpose, the use, the potential effects it can have and why, etc. You may teach them something they never knew before and change their perspective on it, and vice versa.
- Remind them that COVID-19 is temporary. Although it seems never ending right now, COVID-19 will come to an end one way or another, and is not forever. Sometimes, with the length of time it's lasted, it may seem perpetual and it's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Help them experience some degree of normalcy using a harm reduction approach ( see my last blog "How To Live A Full Life During The Pandemic") It's also important to keep up with news regarding COVID-19 and any new pieces of information learned and reported.
- Educate yourself on the topics they worry about such as the Black Lives Matter Movement. One way to try and understand racial injustice and the recent protests is by learning about it through documentaries, books, movies, news articles, interviews etc. In doing this, you are doing your part to hear an entire community of people as well as fulfilling the responsibility to keep yourself updated and knowledgeable on the subject. Listen and respect to your child's opinion on this movement and do not judge even if you disagree. Everyone has a right to their own feelings and feeling aren't facts.
- Know the signs of anxiety. Staying educated on a common mental illness like anxiety keeps you aware of yourself and your loved ones if anything serious were to arise. This way, you can take precaution before they get worse. Some signs to watch for may include: your child trying to get out of activities such as going to school, sports practice, a school club, a friend's house etc.; expressing fear and worry about routine parts of their daily life, trouble sleeping , eating or concentrating; changes in behavior such as mood swings and irritability; physical pain and discomfort like headaches, stomach aches, or fatigue; a noticeable negative change in grades; substance abuse and other related behaviors.
- Start an open conversation about mental illness in the home. Unfortunately, mental illness is still very stigmatized in today's society. In order to get a handle on the mental illness crisis in America, we must take steps to normalize it; a great first step is to start an open conversation behind closed doors with your family and close friends about mental illness by informing them of things like why it occurs and the warning signs. Normalizing this topic in the home has the potential to start a domino effect across all different kinds of homes across America, directly impacting society and the way mental illness is viewed.
While there is no set answer to completely deter the direction of teenage anxiety rates, a little can go a long way. By taking care of the things that are in your control you are able to make your own impact on the world around you.
As a parent, no matter what you do may not be enough. Your teen may need to acquire new tools and strategies to help them cope better with their anxiety but you may not have those tools in your toolbox.
Fortunately, there are many resources available when it comes to treating anxiety. Options can go from finding a good therapist, to taking prescribed medication, or doing both. And it all depends on what works best for your child.
If your teen is having difficulty with anxiety we are always here to help.