It can be hard to know how to manage an anxious teen. Coach Richard Andrews explains the symptoms to look for and gives tips on how you can help
We're all anxious from time to time, but how can we know if our children's anxiety is something more? Anxiety in children can be caused by many factors including: bereavement or other traumatic events; changes such as moving house, starting a new school or conflict at home. Teenagers often become more socially anxious as they come to terms with the changes that are happening to them and, of course, some people are just naturally more anxious.
In children, anxiety can show as:
- Being clingy
- Sleep problems, including bad dreams, waking up in the night and even reverting to wetting the bed
- Appear angry
- Being unwilling to try new things, even if they appear simple to you
- Becoming less sociable, avoiding everyday activities
- Having negative thoughts
Of course, any of these symptoms could be part of the normal behaviour of any child, but if they are severe, persistent and interfere with the child's normal daily life (or your normal, daily life!), it's probably time to start doing something about it. Here are some ideas for giving emotional support that might help, and a few practical tips:
Acknowledge their feelings - Don't try to convince them not to be anxious: they're not doing it deliberately! Let them know that it's ok for them to feel the way they do and that you understand.
Reassure them - Tell your child that you're there to help.
Ask them what they think might help - Remember you don't have all the answers -children can often can come up with ideas to help themselves if you encourage them.
Don't avoid difficult situations - Avoiding the situations that cause anxiety will not help and it sends a message that anxiety will prevent them from doing normal things like everyone else. Help them to focus on their feelings and encourage them to talk about them. This should gradually help to build their resilience.
- Keep the worries in their place - Encourage your child to have a particular time of day to think about their worries. Some children might like to tell their worries to a special doll so that the doll can look after the worries for most of the time, others may wish to draw or write them down and put them away in a box. If they like writing they may value keeping a diary, thinking about how they have felt during the day: when was it bad and when was it ok, and what made it like that? All of these tips can help your child feel more in control of their anxiety
- Help your child to become more aware of when they are beginning to feel anxious - Encouraging them to spot the signs puts them more in control and gives them a better chance of seeking help.
- Recognise that the anxiety comes and goes - Help your child to understand that the anxiety is not constant - it comes and goes. Once they recognise that the anxiety will pass again eventually, it becomes easier to deal with.
- Don't inadvertently feed their anxiety - Ask: "How do you feel about the test?", not "Are you worried about the test?"
- Talk about the worry and make a plan - Work through the situation and think about what might happen - make a plan. If your child is worried that you will be late picking them up from school, ask him or her to think about what they would do. Perhaps they would speak to the duty teacher who would be able to look after them until you arrive or perhaps give you a call. Again, having a plan puts your child more in control.
- Talk about something else - Distracting your child by talking about something else can help. Simple games can help keep their mind off their anxiety.
- Use breathing to calm down - Try breathing deeply and slowly with your child - this often has a soothing effect.
- Focus on positives - Particularly at bed-time, it can be helpful to make a point of talking about good things. Ask what made your child happy today or about something that they may be looking forward to like a day out.
- Give them a hug! - It usually helps!
If your child's anxiety does not improve, despite trying these techniques, consider seeking professional help: It will probably be helpful to liaise with staff at your child's school, particularly the Guidance Teacher or School Nurse. You also may want to consider getting advice from your GP.
Following a career in The City, Richard became a full-time executive coach in 2003. He has also volunteered as a call-taker at Parentline for more than 16 years.