If you’re a parent of an anxious child or teen, you’ll be familiar with the scenarios that can send your highly-strung one into a spin.
There’s the fear of not fitting in, stress over new teachers and new classes, exam anxiety, project perfectionism, fashion fixation, looming school camps, and daunting decisions to make—not to mention the relentless pressures of social media.
For parents of teens struggling with anxiety, Collett Smart’s advice will help.
Collett, who is an adolescent psychologist, teacher and parent herself, chatted to Hope 103.2’s Emma Mullings about how to help anxious children and teens cope better with life’s demands.
How To Spot An Anxious Teenager
According to Beyond Blue, around one in six young Australians aged 16 to 24 are currently experiencing an anxiety condition. Children with anxious parents tend to display more anxiety, and the condition is a little more common in teen girls than boys, said Collett.
Yet despite how common it is, it’s not something you can see on the surface; you won’t have any success playing “spot the anxious teenager”.
In fact those who are affected are often the last people you’d expect to be anxious, said Collett.
“I think one of the biggest reasons anxiety can simmer under the surface for some teens, and we kind of don’t see it initially, is because many of these very anxious teens tend to be very good at their grades at school,” she explained.
“They’re liked by others, they’re well behaved, they’re meticulous.”
“People often say to a parent of an anxious teen, “What has she got to be anxious about? She does so well in her tests!”
“They follow rules because they’re so afraid of stepping out, so anxious about standing out, that they try to do everything perfectly well—and so they put intense pressure on themselves not only to do well, but to be perfect all the time.
“So their expectations and perceptions are disconnected from what’s really accurate or realistic in life.
A Little Anxiety Is Normal
The first tip Collett stressed was that certain amounts of anxiety are actually a normal part of growing up.
“I often say to teenagers and to my students at uni, “a little bit of fear or anxiety in a controlled way is not a bad thing”.
“It’s part of our fight or flight mechanism; it tells you to run away if there’s danger, so it’s protective. A tiny bit of anxiety or fear actually forces you to study for your exams because most of us think, “I don’t want to fail so I’d better study”.
Signs That Your Teen Has Problem Levels Of Anxiety
It’s when anxiety holds your child or teenager back from living their life in a balanced way that it becomes a serious problem.
“The problem is when it starts to take over their lives,” Collett said. “It becomes a downward spiral… It can be quite debilitating for them.”
Anxiety may be developing into a problem for your teenager if they are:
- Worrying that everything will go wrong
- Ruminating on negative thoughts
- Avoiding groups and activities
- Becoming very rigid in their thinking
- Overly sensitive to criticism by teachers or adults
- ‘Freezing’ or going blank when asked to make a decision
Four Ways Parents Can Help Their Anxious Teen
A psychologist experienced in counselling young people can be an enormous help for a teenager whose anxiety is getting the better of them. But there are also steps parents can take themselves, to help their teenager approach life in a less anxious way.
1) The ‘Spotlight Effect’
In her work with teenagers, Collett often uses the concept of “The Spotlight Effect” to help them become less anxious and self-conscious. The Spotlight Effect is the tendency to believe that you are ‘under a spotlight’ – being watched by everyone around you.
To help people worry less about other peoples’ opinion, Collett essentially turns this effect on its head.
“When you’re anxious, you tend to feel like you are that person on display for everyone to see,” she said. “But what I tell young people is, that everyone’s got the spotlight effect. And everybody’s spotlight is shining so brightly on them, and they’re so blinded by their own spotlight, that they can’t see you anyway.
“I’m actually helping them to put into perspective that most teens are feeling anxious.”
2) Teach Them To Have Routines
It’s helpful for highly-strung young people to be well organised, so as to prevent last-minute panic.
To that end, Collett recommends that young people have routines to prepare well in advance for events, commitments, assignments—or even going to school in the morning.
“Help them to break down the tasks that they’re anxious about, break it into chunks,” she said.
“Get them to use a diary, and journal. Writing down and planning is very important for them. Get them to put books and clothes out the night before school.”
3) Don’t Rescue – Help Them Become Independent
Parents of teenagers must be careful not to constantly “rescue” their anxious son or daughter, said Collett. Otherwise they won’t learn to take responsibility and overcome their fears.
“When your children are teens, don’t micromanage,” she said. “You have to start stepping back.
“Give them lists and help them to own that list, and make decisions for themselves, slowly.”
4) Don’t Run Away – Choose One Mountain To Conquer
Another tip to help parents with an anxious teen, is to choose one element of the mountain range that your child is fearing, and help them to conquer that – and that alone.
Conquering one mountain at a time is far easier than facing up to the Great Dividing Range.
“I say to parents, “pick your mountain”,” Collett said.
“I’m always dealing with families at this time of year, whose children are very anxious about school camp. So if your child is anxious about the high ropes, speak to the school. Your child’s mountain is just getting on the camp. They can sit out of the high ropes.
“Or if they feel like they need to call mum every night to say goodnight, it’s not a big deal. For them, their mountain is just getting on camp.
“Get teachers and others onside, pick the mountains for your children and tackle those, and don’t run away from everything. Help them to face it, but help them to face it in chunks and sizes that are manageable for them.”
About Collett Smart
Collett Smart is a consultant psychologist, qualified teacher, lecturer, author, wife and mother of three children. She writes on many issues affecting teenagers, at Familysmart.com.au.