Health & Well-being

How to talk about: Anxiety in teenagers

Talking about anxiety

I will never forget the day that anxiety came knocking at our door. My 15-year-old was away on a school trip in a rather rough part of town. Imagine my dismay when the leader of her group informed me that she was not with them and had apparently jumped on a train to meet some friends in the city. I would love to tell you that I took a few deep breaths and calmly called her on her cellphone. However, ‘Calm Mum’ didn’t manage to take the lead in this moment. Instead, panic set in. I called her and proceeded to yell. How could you do this? What were you thinking? Where are you going? (You know the drill... some call it the ‘Mum rant’).

What followed was her first panic attack. I remember holding the tension of anger for what she had done with despair for causing her to panic in that way. From out of nowhere I found myself instructing her to use a grounding technique (see below) I had heard of on some health podcast I had listened to.

Tell me what you can see. Now tell me what you can hear... taste... feel.

Somehow, she calmed down enough to exit the train and catch the next train back to her school group. The following months were pretty interesting. As I watched my first-born battling with anxiety, I wrestled with my own anxiety as well as the shame of not being a good enough parent to avoid having an anxious child. There were moments of showing up for her with compassion and understanding, and many other moments of dismissing her feelings as being overly dramatic or just wrong. If any of this story resonates with you, I hope you can take a deep breath and be kind to yourself. That’s certainly the first step in journeying through anxiety with your teen!

First, let's talk about you

When you have an anxious teen, it can be so tempting to play the blame game. This must be my fault. You may also be really struggling with your own anxiety about your teen’s anxiety. I really hope you can hear me on this point – it’s absolutely possible to have been a good enough parent and still have a teen who is anxious. Your teen's anxiety is not about you. However, to best support our teens, we must understand the importance of managing our own anxiety first. Before we can lend our calm to our teen, we need to collect up some calm for ourselves. Find people who you trust to talk through your situation. Counsellors, family coaches and good friends who have journeyed life with you are a great start.

Anxiety shouldn’t be a taboo topic – talking about it (to the right people) really helps. And as role models, we’re showing our kids how to manage their own big feelings by the way we manage our own. So, we shouldn’t stay quiet and stuff all our anxious feelings under the mat. Being honest about our own struggles helps us show empathy to our kids when they’re struggling. And it lets them know they’re not alone – it’s a huge relief to realise you’re not the only one!

I really hope you can hear me on this point – it’s absolutely possible to have been a good enough parent and still have a teen who is anxious.

Now, let's talk about teenagers...

We know that anxiety in small children looks different to anxiety during the teen years. This makes absolute sense – what may have started as an irrational fear about the dark or leaving Mum or Dad at the kindy gate now expands to include a whole new social world outside of the safety of home. Our teens are navigating their move towards autonomy. They are expanding their social networks with school and friendships. This can be overwhelming and create a sense of anxiety. A teenager’s anxiety is often inward – they can be anxious about themselves and how they fit in their world. They can be anxious about their performance, how they are perceived and even their ever-changing bodies. These are all very normal concerns for a teenager and are related to the important brain development (or ‘upstairs renovations’) happening for them at this time.

What’s really going on – a very quick summary of anxiety and emotions

Your teen may be encouraged to know that anxiety is a normal human response; it actually serves an important purpose. It’s our brain’s way of alerting us to potential danger and readying us to deal with a perceived threat. Chemicals are released in the body to make us more alert, faster and stronger. The human brain is pretty clever, but it’s not always brilliant at telling the anxiety to stand down once the threat is dealt with. And with all those chemicals still in our body when they’re not needed, we can feel pretty awful. That is why something as simple as breathing can be so effective in shutting down a panic attack. Strong, deep breaths calm our brains, shut down the chemicals and help us feel normal again.

The human brain is pretty clever, but it’s not always brilliant at telling the anxiety to stand down once the threat is dealt with.

Experiencing big emotions is another very normal part of being a human. Emotions can be confronting though; they can knock us around a bit. ‘Name it to tame it’ is a tool based on the idea that recognising a feeling for what it is can make it feel less overwhelming. This may sound weird, especially to a young person, but this tool really works:

  • Hello Scared, it makes sense that you’re here.

  • Oh hi, Anxiety – you’re back. Thanks for checking in, but I’ve got this.

Emotions are like waves on a beach. They roll in, but they also head back out to sea. Supporting your teen to understand that all emotions will pass – even the tough ones – is another important tool to help them manage anxiety. This will help them push through to brave when faced with situations that seem too much.

So, how do we talk to our teens about their anxiety?

1. Be curious

Asking good questions is key to supporting our teens through anxiety. But as important as our ‘gentle enquiry skills’ are, it's even more important that we learn to simply listen. And then we listen some more – even if what our teen is saying seems absurd. Be curious, welcome your teen’s inner dialogue into the conversation. Gently ask probing questions.

  • Can you tell me more about that?

  • What else happens when you feel like that?

  • Did anything happen earlier in the day?

Remind yourself not to dismiss your teen’s anxious feelings, even if they don’t seem rational to you. And whatever they tell you, keep your cool. Our big reactions to what our teen is telling us can alarm them further. Instead, we stay calm, compassionate and curious, and we encourage our teen that we’re not going anywhere – whatever is causing them anxiety, we’ll figure it out together. That might look like seeking professional support. It could help your teen to know there are specialists who are trained in helping young people with anxiety.

2. Share your own experiences

Back to my earlier point, when we share our own worries and, more importantly, how we cope with those worries, we’re empowering our teens with the awareness that they’re not alone in the struggle with anxiety, and there is a way through it. Teens tend to think adults (especially their parents!) are pretty out of touch and don’t understand what they're going through. When we relate to their struggles, and share our own challenges, we open up the conversation and hold that door open for further communication and connection.

3. Empathise, and then empathise some more

Everyone appreciates feeling listened to and understood. Our teenagers may seem all independent, but they still appreciate our validation. So, pull out those reflective listening skills and throw in some empathising statements that show you get it. You don’t have to solve the problem, you just need to validate their feelings.

  • Sounds like you’re feeling overlooked by that teacher.

  • Seems like you’re worried about your final grades.

  • Sounds so tough not knowing anyone in that class.

  • Yeah, I remember feeling nervous about what I’d do when I finished school too.

There are lots of tools out there that help us manage anxiety. This article is really just a starting point – a way to get some conversation going, and hopefully keep the lines of communication open so our teens know that no matter what they’re going through, they can come to us and talk. And we will listen. We may not have all the answers, and they may not want our advice anyway, but they do need a haven to feel seen and heard. When anxiety strikes, parents can provide some calm in the storm, and a safe place to land. To do that effectively and consistently, we need to be looking after ourselves too. So be kind to yourself, seek support if you need it, and talk to your GP if your teen’s anxiety is worrying you. Our brains are amazing, but they can work overtime. A listening ear and some fresh perspective can be just what we need to find our calm again.

Grounding techniques are commonly used in mindfulness practice. They’re exercises that can help distract us from anxious feelings and by helping us refocus on the present moment. There are loads of different grounding techniques, featured on many a health and well-being website, so you might like to explore different exercises with your child to find one that suits them best. The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a good place to start. Working backward from 5, use your senses to list things you notice around you. For example, you might list 5 things you hear, 4 things you see, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.


Sheridan Eketone

Sheridan Eketone is passionate about shaping the hearts of the next generation through parenting. Mum of four, Sheridan is grateful to her own tamariki for teaching her the importance of connection when it comes to raising confident and resilient kids.

Sheridan works as a presenter and facilitator trainer for Parenting Place. A warm, relatable and enthusiastic communicator, Sheridan draws on ideas from the Circle of Security – an attachment-based relational concept that has deeply impacted her own parenting – to empower parents to be the best they can be.

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