More than ever, our teenagers are feeling anxious and overwhelmed. As a result, some kids develop physical symptoms like stomach aches or migraines. Some teenagers are moody or irritable. And some teenagers struggle to even get out of bed in the morning to face another stressful day.
Last week, an article in the New York Times discussed how anxiety is affecting more American teens than ever before. Teen anxiety has been on the rise for decades, but has recently skyrocketed. Even teens who are successful in school, sports and other extra-curricular activities
According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, in 2016, 41% of college freshman “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do”, as opposed to 29% in 2010, and just 18% in 1985. That’s a 25% increase in just the last six years.
By the time they get to college, many teenagers have internalized anxiety as a primary way of responding to the world.
Often it is hard to tell exactly how anxious a teenager actually is. They may be highly functional, even excelling, in sports, academics, or the arts. In fact, many high-achieving teens consider their relentless pursuit of success to be a personal strength. The definition of who they are. I am a successful person.
Therein lies the rub.
When teenagers define themselves by their successes, they have a terrible fear of failure. This pressure to succeed often leads to tremendous anxiety.
They become hypervigilant about anything that might be seen as a “failure”. After all, their self-image depends on it.
In fact, working hard to do well in school or sports or any other endeavor is a behavior, not a character trait. If we say, “He is a hard worker”, instead of “He worked really hard on that project”, then it follows that if the same teenager fails on a project, that we must believe he is a failure.
As a therapist with years of experience working with teenagers, I can tell you that when they don’t do well in school, sports, or anything that means a lot to them, what they think is “I am a failure”.
How can we help our teenagers feel less anxiety about success and failure?
Success or failure at a given endeavor is the result of our behavior, rather than a reflection of our essential character.
Success reflects behaviors such as hard work, tenacity, problem-solving, persisting in the face of obstacles, persisting in the face of opposition, working to bring various groups together to solve a problem, prioritizing, creative thinking, etc.
When we describe events–such as a good grade, or a blue ribbon, or admission to a “good” college– as a result of behavior, we are also able to describe less successful events– such as a bad grade, a loss in sports, a rejection from a certain college–also as a result of behavior, rather than as a result of a defective character.
By seeing success or failure as a result of behavior, we empower our teenagers.
If an intermediate failure (and, for teenagers, they can all be framed as intermediate) can be framed as a result of various behaviors, then we can help our teenager analyze their behavior to understand how they can do better the next time. This frames their "failure" as part of a process, rather than an end result.
Even if a failure is most likely a result of a random occurrence, we can still examine what behavior might have contributed, or even what choices we might have made differently, and therefore feel more powerful.
Another thing to consider – perhaps your teenager failed at something that is really not that important to them. Seeing the failure as a result of behavior will make it possible to ask a question like the following, “So, you got a C in math. Is that because you need some help figuring out a better way to study the material, or is it because you just don’t really care about math that much?”
If you, as a parent, can look at your teenager’s “failures” without judging your teenager personally, they may be more honest about their motivation.
Instead of wasting your time discussing how they could study better (because they won’t, if that’s not actually the problem in the first place) you can have a discussion about whether or not their performance in math class is actually important for the goals they themselves want to achieve (like getting into a good college, even if they never take another math class).
Discussing performance in this way will improve your communication with your teenager, and make you feel empowered as a parent. Your teenager will feel heard and understood, and this will improve your relationship with them.
Most importantly, treating your teenager’s performance as a result of behavior choices rather than character flaws will significantly reduce their anxiety and empower them to make decisions that match their behavior to their own goals.
What if my teenager has test anxiety, or anxiety in other specific situations?
Some anxiety is normal, and even necessary. Anxiety serves an important function in our lives- it alerts us to something that needs our attention.
There are two kinds of anxiety, and it is critical to be able to distinguish between them.
First there is anxiety that is a signal. This kind of anxiety is useful, telling us that something needs our attention– we are entering into a situation where we need to be alert and aware.
Then there is anxiety that is a habit– it is simply the way we are used to dealing with a specific situation like a test or a volleyball game or even an elevator ride. In this case, a small amount of the anxiety we feel may be a signal that we need to pay attention, but the majority of the anxiety is a habit formed by the same emotion being repeated over and over in this and similar situations.
You have probably heard of techniques like deep breathing or meditation or even yoga, all of which have been shown to reduce anxiety. Your teenager may have even tried some or all of these techniques.
Here’s why these calming techniques are never enough:
Anxiety is often a meta-emotion.
What does this mean?
Take, for instance, anxiety about an upcoming test. This anxiety may actually be fairly manageable. We can study. We can take practice tests. But here’s where anxiety the meta-emotion comes in.
We feel anxiety about our anxiety.
This meta-anxiety is insidious. It creeps into our psyche, and really freaks us out. What if I panic during the test? Will I embarrass myself? Will my friends notice me losing it in class? Will the teacher say something humiliating to me?
Notice that none of these fears is about actual performance on the test.
We know that the teenage brain is wired to care about the opinion of its peers more than it cares about almost anything else. Consequently, the idea of public humiliation is about the worst thing a teenager can contemplate.
Sooo…. If a teenager has practiced, say, deep breathing, and does some breathing exercises before the test, they will probably be able to calm themselves down. Then they go into the classroom and start to feel some physical sign of anxiety. Maybe only just a very small physical sign. But here comes meta-anxiety.
The voice of meta-anxiety goes like this, “See, you did those breathing exercises but here I am anyway. I am going to sneak up on you. I am going to embarrass you. I am going to grow and grow, little by little, until you will feel that choking feeling, or that sick stomach, or whatever, and you will be humiliated.”
How can we manage this meta-anxiety?
Interestingly, I find that many times my clients with anxiety who have a prescription for anti-anxiety medication, do not have anxiety attacks when they know they have their pills with them. This shows that just believing they will be okay can alleviate much of their anxiety.
There are other ways we can achieve this effect as well.
Here’s a brief 3-step method to manage your meta-anxiety:
1. Help your teenager learn to externalize their anxiety. If they can see their anxiety as something outside themselves, they can retain their own power. It is helpful to picture the anxiety as a person, or even some sort of talking character.
Have your teenager describe Anxiety- what do they look like? What do they sound like? What is their name? Let’s call him George.
2. What is George saying? Probably something to the effect of, “You are going to bomb this test. You are never going to get into college. You will have to live in your parents’ basement forever”. Actually, the more you develop the things that George is saying, the easier it is to make them a little ridiculous.
3. Now, here’s the important part! What can you say back?
Once you have practiced all the things George might say to destroy your confidence, you can brainstorm your responses.
“I doubt I’ll bomb this test; I studied really hard”
“Even if I bomb this test, I will still go to college. This test isn’t going to be the one thing a college admissions officer looks at”.
“Even if I bomb my test, that doesn’t mean I’ll live forever in the basement!”
After the obvious responses, play with it,
“I LOVE my parents’ basement!! George, will you come live with me there, too?”
“Maybe next time instead of studying, I will spend my time digging a tunnel from my parents’ basement to McDonalds, so I can get a burger without going outside.”
I guarantee you, if you get to the point where your teenager is coming up with goofy responses like these, they will be feeling a sense of power over that annoying George.
If you think this is too weird to actually work, please watch the excellent videos on anxiety by Reid Wilson, a professor at University of North Carolina, one of the pioneers of this method.
But what if this isn’t enough?
What if, despite everything you try, your teenager is still overwhelmed by anxiety?
You and your teenager would probably benefit from some professional help. It can be tough to implement some of these techniques on your own. A good therapist can give you and your teenager even more tools to help manage their anxiety, and can coach you how to support them as their parent.
I specialize in stressed-out parents of teenagers, and I am happy to answer any questions you might have about teen anxiety– or your own!
You can call me at 323-999-1537 or email me at email@example.com for a free consultation, or schedule an appointment 24/7 by clicking on the button below. If I can’t help you, I will be sure to find someone in your area who can!