The Truth About Teen Anxiety - Part 1
Anxiety seems to be spreading amongst youth today faster than ever. It feels like an anxiety virus infecting Gen Z, so much so that they become anxious about being anxious. Every time we turn around, there is an article online discussing anxiety and its negative impact on the high school, college, and young adult demographics. From the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times, numerous publications have focused on the difficulty Gen Z faces when it comes to anxiety. The average age of anxiety onset in the US is 11yrs old. Our students are struggling and need as much help as possible to survive and thrive in this time.
Throughout my time working with youth, I have learned quite a few ways to help struggling students, and this is what I want to discuss today. Before we begin, I want to call out that there will be circumstances where anxiety is so severe that seeking professional medical treatment is necessary. As I discuss tips and tricks on assisting the youth in your life, I hope that these will also help you discern when more significant assistance is necessary beyond what you alone can provide. Before we get to these, I want us as mentors, pastors, parents, and leaders to understand how we or other influences may be contributing or exacerbating our student's daily anxiety.
Five contributing factors impact anxiety in our lives:
1.) Technology: Adolescent risk behaviors have been on the rise since the pandemic started due to tech use. FOMO or fear of missing out is real, and fear of rejection can be a strong push.
2.) Parent Pressure: Today, most students feel pressured by society and culture to meet a set of expectations which is compounded when parents/mentors/pastors pressure them to be "enough." On the flip side, we also run the risk of being helicopter parents and swooping in to save them out of fear of failure. We need to allow our children to develop grit, and that is only forged through difficulty.
3.) Busyness: We need to encourage our children to slow down. Our culture and society are so fast; we need to enable them to rest and to slow their heart rates which allows their brains to adjust and calm down.
4.) Social Isolation: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that isolation does not encourage vulnerability, authenticity, or connection. We need to encourage our children to be mindful and cultivate relationships during this time as it is vital.
5.) Brain Neurochemistry: Understand that the brain is an organ, and sometimes we need professional help such as counseling or doctor-approved medication to help us adjust and level out and encourage our brain to function properly.
With this knowledge, we need to understand that sometimes scripture and prayer alone are not enough to defeat what we struggle with. God made us experience a wide array of emotions as a part of the human experience. When our emotions are out of balance, we may need help to resolve and move forward, and we need not be ashamed of this fact. Here are suggestions on ways we can respond and help our children as they walk through their struggles with anxiety:
1.) Give youth permission to talk about anxiety: You may be the "first responder" with your child and their anxiety. Do not downplay what they are going through and know your response impacts how they deal with their anxiety.
a.) Communicate that it's ok to have anxiety: Tell them that you are creating a safe space to talk about their anxiety.
b.) Normalize anxiety: Discuss how you, or someone you know, have struggled with anxiety and what that path or road looks like. Ask them to rate their anxiety from 1 to 10, with 1 being mild and 10 being the worst. 1-3 is not a big deal; 4-5 stay alert and begin to ask questions; but 6-10, we need to be intervening and seeking additional help.
2.) Help identify the roots of anxiety: Understand that anxiety is usually a response to a more profound underlying feeling. Anxiety is more about how we cope with the world. It is critical to make this distinction, as many times, students can get focused on fixing or ending their anxiety and not the underlying root cause, which creates a cycle that brings anxiety back up.
a.) Use a handout of feeling words that can give teens the ability to indicate what they are feeling clearly. Naming helps them understand themselves better and helps you better understand their experience. It also builds an increased sense of safety and trust in the relationship.
b.) Use 3X5 cards and write a feeling word and have your child choose words that they can identify as what they are feeling. Then use those words to start a conversation.
3.) Provide tools to help manage the anxiety: It's challenging for youth to use tools on their own, so helping them use tools so you can manage their anxiety together can be helpful.
a.) Breathing Exercises: Restoring a calming breath pattern can help students feel connected, grounded, and clear their heads. Box Breathing is a technique of four-square breathing, it involves exhaling to a count of four, holding your lungs empty for a four-count, inhaling at the same pace, and holding air in your lungs for a count of four before exhaling and beginning the pattern anew.
b.) Center on a truthful statement or helpful family mantra. Example: You are not alone. It's ok to not be ok. Or, we are here no matter what.
c.) Help them do a self-care assessment: make four columns: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. One column at a time helps them name things they are doing to build self-care. Pick 1 or more items that they can consistently accomplish to take care of themselves.
4.) Develop Your Team: Parenting is not a solo sport. Look for people investing in your child's life that can partner with you to positively influence your child.
5.) Reframe anxiety as an opportunity to grow: Most teens believe anxiety is a bad thing and is to be avoided at all costs. Great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard thought it could provide us with insight and lead to growth and change.
a.) Take your child through Bible stories where anxiety was present and discuss how it can be a powerful tool to shape and grow them. Examples include Jacob wrestling with God, Jesus in the garden, wandering in the wilderness, the battle of Jericho, etc.
6.) Practice working through anxiety: Understand that insight alone is not enough. It's not enough to know you are anxious; we take that insight and put it into practice. Deliberately practicing working with and through their anxiety will help them experience more victory over it.
a.) Have your child identify a specific area of their life that brings them anxiety. Then begin to explore tangible steps they can take to face anxiety head-on. Plan those out together and encourage them when they are struggling. Examples: Going for a walk, words of affirmation, or disruptive thoughts to break up anxiety.
b.) Walk them through calling out what they feel. When they feel that way, what do they do? Have them state the truth about the situation vs. the lie of what their body is telling them. This is followed by saying what different action they can take in the instead of their usual practices of anxiety.
c.) Ask your child what triggers them: Not everyone has the same calming response. Example: If I'm anxious and someone hugs me, that raises my anxiety. Asking them what a calm response would be for them is essential.
Finally, I want us to understand that the words we use have power. The language we use directly reflects what we believe about someone and how we view them. The comments and language we choose can nourish or destroy someone.
Words or statements to avoid:
-You and today's youth (suggesting it's a fad or a trend)
-You're being hormonal
-You're being crazy
-Have you tried…
- Just Stop
-It's all in your head
-Pray it through
-It's not a big deal
-Get over it
I have struggled with anxiety since the age of seven. I would be remiss not to mention the number of times someone with good intentions said, "just stop" or "just pray". Those words brought me great shame because I couldn’t overcome my anxiety in their timeframe or their way. Please be mindful of the words you use and when you use them.
The tools provided in this blog aren’t one and done tools. Rather, they require time and continuous use and practice. By taking this long-term approach, your youth will learn the life skills they need and tap into them whenever anxiety closes in. working hard to provide tools our youth can use when anxiety closes in.