- By Carol Cuppy
Here are several ways to help our teens change their anxious thinking habits and lead them toward a healthier mindset.
Donna watched as her teenage daughter, Emma, paced the gate area at the airport. The flight from Iowa to California was an hour away, and, up until now, Emma had seemed excited about the family vacation. However, now her anxiety was bubbling to the surface. Emma sat down, her breathing short and shallow. She stood up, paced some more. Donna watched her a moment. Emma had never been afraid of flying before, but lately, her teenager had been growing more and more anxious about all manner of things in her young life. Donna needed to find some ways to help her teen with her anxiety.
Donna wrapped her arm around Emma’s shoulder and said, “You are okay. Let’s take a walk down to the bookstore and see if we can find something irresistible to read.” The thought of something to do took Emma’s mind off of the upcoming flight, and her face brightened at the idea of a new book to add to her collection. Donna hugged her daughter as they wandered down the terminal together. This approach might work for today, but she would have to find ways to help Emma with her anxiety permanently. She made a mental note to start learning how as soon as she got on the flight.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is worry — whether about a perceived future or an imagined threat. The word anxiety is often used interchangeably with fear; however, fear is a healthy reaction to a real and present danger. While fear occurs in the present tense, anxiety focuses on the future. Anxiety asks the question, “What if?” It focuses on what could happen rather than what is happening now.
We have no control over something that doesn’t exist. Since the future does not exist yet, our teens often feel as if they are out of control when speculating about what could happen. That feeling of being out of control can create anxiety.
What Causes Anxiety in Teens?
Some teenagers can have a predisposition toward anxiety, which a variety of factors can cause. For some teens, physiological factors can make them more prone to having anxiety. For others, it can come from learned behavior — from parents, siblings, or other people who have a significant influence in their lives. Even birth order can impact anxiety in our teens; studies have shown that firstborn children tend to have more anxiety than younger siblings. Cultural influences can also have a significant impact on a teen’s predisposition toward anxiety.
Helping Teens With Anxiety
At its root, anxiety is a bad thinking habit. The good news? It’s possible to change our habits! In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus tells us not to be anxious! He tells us not to worry about tomorrow, for it has enough trouble of its own, and to focus on the day at hand.
Here are a couple of ways to help our kids change their anxious thinking habits and lead them toward a healthier mindset by keeping them focused on the present.
1. Grounding Techniques For Helping Teens With Anxiety
It is essential to train the brain to stay in the present. Anxiety focuses on “what if” instead of “what is.” It is wise to be aware of things that will happen in the future and prepare for them, but this can be done without anxiety. It is also essential for us to recognize circumstances in the world beyond our control anyway and let those things go.
For example, Susie has a biology exam coming up on Friday. She can become anxious about failing the test or be aware of it and make adequate preparations for it by studying. Those preparations will pay off in the future and are something your teen can do today.
The 3×5+1 Method
I sat down with Focus on the Family counselors Tim Sanford and Glenn Lutjens to discuss ways teenagers can overcome their anxiety. Tim described a technique to me that he calls the 3×5+1 method. When your teen is feeling anxious, go through the following questions and have them answer the questions aloud if possible.
- Name five colors that you can see right now.
- Name five sounds that you can hear right now. (Your teen can make up sounds – such as smacking their lips, clapping their hands, etc., to further bring them back into the present.)
- Name five things that you can physically feel right now (such as air from the fan, your fingers against the desk, etc.)
Once your teen has answered these three questions and named five things for each, ask them one last question:
- What is the one thing I need to be thinking about or doing right now?
The first three questions in this method will help ground your teen in the present rather than in the future. Ask the fourth question once your teen has shifted his or her focus back to the present. This last question is vital for instructing the brain where to go and how it will think moving forward.
Routine and Repetition
It takes anywhere from two to four months for our brains to untrain themselves from old thinking patterns and learn new ones. One critical way to accomplish this is through routine and repetition. Repetition rewires our brain’s neural pathways and is how we learn as human beings. Therefore, repeating the above technique can help your teens develop healthy thinking habits.
Have your teen do the 3×5+1 technique at least three times a day:
1) First thing in the morning
2) Sometime during the day (a lunch break, for example)
3) As they are getting ready for bed.
It will take time to establish this routine and to see the results of the effort. However, as your teen keeps practicing this routine, anxious thoughts will happen less and less frequently.
The Bible tells us to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 2:5). We are not to “be conformed by the patterns of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Anxiety can run amok if we’re not being intentional about retraining our brains and directing them in how they should think. We must take “the transforming of the mind” seriously.
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2. Parents Play a Role
Parents, take a look at yourselves and your own anxiety levels. How often do you experience anxiety? If you struggle with anxiety, taking the above steps with your kids can be a great way to calm the anxiety in yourself and help your kids overcome it. Practice the above methods together. You’ll find that it not only enables you to overcome anxious thoughts but will help you and your teen bond as well.
Focus on the Present
Also, take a look at what you may be consciously or unconsciously communicating to your kids. Remember that even if you mean something one way, your kids may interpret your words differently. For example, how often do you tell them to be safe or wear clean underwear just in case they’re in a car wreck? Do you ask them about where they’re going to go to college, what their degree plan will be, and how they will pay for it? Are you pushing them toward excellence in their lives, or are you encouraging perfectionism? Are your questions and instructions future-focused rather than on what your teen can be doing right now? While some of these conversations are vital to have and make plans for, how parents communicate them can increase anxiety.
Parents can also make anxiety worse by allowing their teens’ anxiety to become a significant focus. There is a line between being compassionate and reinforcing their anxiety. Constantly giving in to it and coddling your teen when they experience it will only make it worse.
When your teenager is anxious, instead of telling them, “It’ll be okay,” tell them, “You’re okay right now. Nod your head, tell me you’re okay now.” Even if they roll their eyes, your teen has engaged and come back to the present.
Make sure your kids know that you love them for who they are right now. Be sure they don’t interpret your love as something they can achieve only when they are less anxious or “acceptable.”
Remember, parents, be gracious with yourselves and your kids. It’s easy to become perfectionistic about being a parent and stress when things aren’t going as well as you had hoped. Give yourself and your kids the grace to have those moments, but also to learn and grow.
When To Pursue Therapy
How do you know when your teen’s anxiety is severe enough for you to seek therapy for them? Here are a few reasons why you may choose to pursue therapy for your teen:
- When you as a parent are emotionally getting sucked into their anxieties, and it is impacting you.
- If your teen is not as open with you as a parent, they may choose to be more open with a therapist about their thoughts. Sometimes a counselor can say things a parent can’t or that your teen is more open to hearing.
- When you need objectivity with your teen.
- If the 3×5+1 method described above isn’t helping after 1-2 months.
- If there are other neurological elements, such as OCD, that are feeding into his or her anxiety.
- When your teen’s anxiety is so severe that it impacts life to a great degree, or he or she is contemplating suicide.
Medication can be one of the ways to help teens with anxiety, if it is severe. It is important to note that medication does not “cure” anxiety. Medications for anxiety slow down a person’s thinking so their brain can figure out how to establish new thought patterns and change.
Think of medication as a pair of jumper cables for your car. When you have a dead battery, you jump the car and start driving again. You don’t go driving down the highway with the cables still attached. Likewise, medication can help your teen get started back in the right direction, but it’s not something they will be on forever.
Final Thoughts on Helping Teens With Anxiety
It’s important to teach our kids to live with some discomfort and feel healthy fear by teaching them to do constructive things to prepare for the future. Establishing healthy patterns that help them overcome that fear and anxiety is one of the best ways of helping teens with anxiety.
If you would like to talk to someone further about your teenager’s anxiety, or need help finding a counselor in your area, Focus on the Family offers a one-time complimentary consultation from a Christian perspective. You can reach a counselor at 1-855-771-HELP (4357). © 2021 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.