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How to Help Your Teenager With Anxiety

Updated: 17 hours ago

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic

Anxiety can be difficult to tackle in any stage of life, but it is particularly challenging to deal with during adolescence. Excessive fears and distress can impair your teen’s ability to function normally and interfere with their academics, family life, friendships, and overall emotional state.

As a parent, you can probably notice the tension and worry on your child's face. And while you might wish that you could simply brush off their fears, you also know that navigating your teens can be challenging enough already. Many things you say or do may end up having the opposite effect, and that's why it's essential to understand how anxiety works, what can alleviate it, and what can exacerbate it.

In her book Helping Your Anxious Teen: Positive Parenting Strategies to Help Your Teen Beat Anxiety, Stress, and Worry, clinical psychologist Sheila Achar Josephs offers research-proven cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies that help you in supporting and coaching your teen through anxiety, stress, and worry.

Understanding Anxiety

When your teen experiences a negative thought, they are often consciously or unconsciously frightened or worried about an issue or an outcome. These negative, fear-based thoughts keep the brain in a fearful state and might potentially trigger a fight-or-flight response – the body’s physiological reaction to severe stress and danger.

Physiologically speaking, the fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare the body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. Their pulse races, breathing speeds up, and pupils dilate – all in response to perceived danger.

This is an expected physical response when your teen is faced with severe stress or what they perceive to be a threat. It can happen in the face of imminent physical danger (such as encountering a growling dog) or as a result of a psychological threat (such as preparing for a big exam at school).

A certain amount of fear in these situations is normal because it can help your teen prepare for real danger. For example, the fear of failure can motivate them to study hard for an exam or practice for a big game. However, there is a fine line between what is considered healthy and unhealthy stress. While one can push your teen to do what they need to work for a desired outcome, the latter can leave them in a perpetual state of distress and anxiety. That state of mind can be enough to activate their fight-or-flight response, causing them to feel crippled or leading them to avoid dealing with the task they must face.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) suggests that negative and distressing emotions are caused by certain thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. In order for these thoughts and emotions to be reduced, they need to be examined and modified. This approach entails looking for a conscious and effective solution to a specific problem.

Let’s say you have a teen who struggles with a perception of themselves as being socially awkward. One CBT