Ep 272: Helping Teens Discuss Anxiety

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Cai Graham talking about how to get teenagers to open up and to talk about their feelings of anxiety with us.

Because one of the hardest things Cai says about helping teenagers deal with anxiety is just getting them to actually talk about it. A big problem is that they don't really even know, or they can't put words on what they're feeling. Often they might feel shame, or feel like they're not supposed to feel this way.

Cai has some great frameworks and tactics for exactly what parents can do and say to get our teenagers to open up to us and feel comfortable talking about their feelings of anxiety so that we can help support them and help them through it.

She is a parenting and teen coach, speaker, podcaster. And the author of this workbook, Fearless and Free, A Step by Step Blueprint to Conquer Anxiety.

Really excited to have Cai on the show today to talk about all this and a whole lot more. Cai, welcome to the Talking to Teens podcast. Thank you so much for being here today.

Cai Graham: Thank you so much for the invite, Andy. I'm thrilled to be here.

Andy Earle: I think we've got a great topic here talking about anxiety and you've got this whole workbook: Fearless and Free, which really walks teenagers through how to understand their anxiety better and develop strategies, both mental and physical, to deal with those feelings.

Talk to me about this a little bit. Where did this come from? How did you put this all together? What inspired you to write this thing?

Cai Graham: Yeah, it's my second book. My first one is called The Teen Toolbox, which is aimed towards parents who are trying to navigate those choppy waters of adolescence.

And this one is much more designed towards young people who have anxiety issues. I've been in private practice for a while and it was me sort of answering a lot of the things that I say on a day-to-day basis to my clients.

How do you spot anxiety? How do I say the right things? What do I do? I just want this to stop. And so I just thought, getting this book out there is a great way of brain dumping everything I know that will be helpful about anxiety.

It is a workbook. It is designed for people to write in the margins. It's got checklists, it's got strategies, you name it. And it's easy to read. It's not one of these, starting at chapter one and going through to the end.

It's very much a this is what I'm feeling today. Let's go and find out what Cai says about it. But to begin with, it addresses anxiety from both the parents point of view, and it guides the parents through the do's and don'ts and what you need to look out for, and also the kids.

Because parents have very different questions than the teens do. And a different perspective as well. So it addresses anxiety from those two camps, and then it merges and it goes through and provides all the information.

Andy Earle: So what are some of those things that parents often struggle with or don't really understand, or some of those questions that they might have around anxiety?

Cai Graham: The big one is that parents really want to get as much information as possible and sometimes their teens are rather uncommunicative, which is their rite of passage when they're growing up. They're trying to get independence as, would you just leave me alone? But also a lot of the time it's just tell me what's wrong, tell me what's happening and then I can help you.

And the kids are going, I don't blimmin know. I haven't a clue what's going on, and so it's how can you verbalize something when you don't know why it's happening and, one part of the brain is going, calm down, you'll be fine and yeah, I know that, but I'm just having a hissy fit here.

Too much is going on for the teens to say, I'll tell you what, mother, this is what I'm experiencing. Because they don't know half the time. They don't know why it's happening. They wish it would go away.

And anxiety's got a different idea. Anxiety's going no, no, no, no, we're going to throw these curveballs at you for as long as we can. And so for parents, it's the right things to say and do.

But also understanding it. I think the big thing for a lot of people, whether or not you're the parent or the teenager, is understanding what anxiety is all about, because a lot of the kids I see, once they get that, they go, I'm not broken. Oh, I'm good to go. I'm fine. And, so it's just busting some of the myths and allowing them to realize that, you know what, this is biology.

And you're not broken. Once we've lifted the lid a bit we can look at this from a slightly different perspective.

Andy Earle: Yeah. And that feeling that I shouldn't be feeling this way also is probably part of the communication issues between parents and teenagers on this stuff.

When you feel like something's wrong with you, you don't really want to talk about it or, explore what's going on with somebody else. You want to keep that close to the chest.

Cai Graham: Yeah, you're quite right. Shame is a big thing and just understanding that 95 percent of the population are going through this and the other 5 percent have probably got their head in the sand because we all experience anxiety.

For some of us, it doesn't faze us. Yeah. I'm feeling a bit wobbly today. That's fine. And others, it sends us into a tailspin. There's nothing to be ashamed of. It's anxiety's job to keep us safe and keep us alive.

When we realize, oh, this is mother nature. This is biology. This is part of being human. Because it's the shame and I mustn't be feeling this. Somewhere along the line, we've been led to believe that we need to be skipping through the tulips and everything's rosy and anything beyond that is really bad. And that's not fair. There are words for our emotions for a reason and whether or not it's sadness or embarrassment or fear or depression or, betrayal, we've got words for this because the more we can name them and stand up to them then the more they can actually not trouble us so much. When you face your fears, then they tend to dissolve and hide away.

It's only when you try and run from them that they come after you. So the trick is to not call them good emotions or bad emotions. They can just be bigger or, they're more prevalent at the time.

Andy Earle: And then it gets into, why can't I be more chill? Why is this such a hard thing for me?

All my friends or other kids in my school they don't seem to be so worked up about everything. Why is it just so hard for me? I wish I wasn't like this and maybe something's wrong with me.

Cai Graham: No, everyone's going through it.

Some are better at masking it than others.

Andy Earle: You talk about an equation in the book E + R = O. Okay, so we're doing some calculus in here. It seems like what's...

Cai Graham: Yeah. E + R = O is saying you can't change someone else. You just have to change your approach to whatever's going on. You hear parents who say, Oh, they make me so angry or they're pushing my buttons. And the thing is you could change your response to them, or whatever's going on. And by changing your response you get a different outcome.

So E is the event. Now that could be getting an F in math. It could be a parent saying, tell me what's wrong. And nothing. Or, it could be anything. It could be burning your hand on a flame. It could be getting cut up on the highway. It doesn't really matter what it is, but E is the event, and that's the thing that is pushing your buttons at the time.

R is your response to that event. So it could be hang on a minute, rather than get cross because I got an F in math. Let's just have a look. All right, okay A, I didn't answer the question, or B, I didn't actually do the work and the revision that I was meant to do. Let's change my response, rather than, that's not fair, maybe it is, yeah, okay, it's probably deserved.

Or when someone's cutting you up on the highway. I tend to use the horn quite a bit. Sorry, road rage. But we're not going to ruin someone's day by doing that, but it can often get under our skin.

So it's hang on a minute, maybe they've got more going on than I realize. Maybe they are needing to go to the birth of their third child. Maybe they are late for a meeting. Maybe the house is burning down. We don't know. And so it's just introducing a little bit of compassion there.

Or, the eggs catch on the bottom of our pan. Ah, I've just ruined this. Doesn't it drive you mad? But it's just those sort of things. It's well, maybe turn the heat down. Maybe let's not be in a rush. Maybe put fat on the pan.

I need to look at this thing in a slightly different light. I need to reframe this. I need to respond differently. And again, when you are asking your darling child, and you get a monosyllabic grunt or the eye roll, it's just hang on a minute. What's going on in their world? There might be something that I don't know about.

And so it's just checking ourselves. And the E + R = O, which is the outcome. And so you change the outcome. It's not how anyone else reacts, it's how you react. You are in charge of that. So from a parent's point of view, if you are getting the monosyllabics or the grunts or the eye rolls or the, I hate you's, then just rather than try and retaliate, maybe just take a step back and just go okay, what's going on here?

Or even wiser, do I really need to pick this battle?

Andy Earle: And often too, I feel like it stacks up throughout the day and we get this narrative in our head about oh, of course, this would go wrong too.

And of course, this would happen too. And oh, yeah, this is going to happen too, because it's just one of those days or this feels like everything is just against me today. And when something more substantial happens later in the day, it's not just that one event that we're responding to.

It's like the accumulation of all these things and this narrative that's been building in our head throughout the whole day. And then, oh, and then this person cuts us off on the freeway. But it's not just that one thing happening. We've been building and brewing maybe all week.

Cai Graham: And I think we end up going, my life sucks. And it's no, hang on a minute. No, it doesn't. You've just had a bad couple of hits and maybe just calm it all down and realize that, this is happening, but they're sort of isolated events.

And it doesn't mean that your life's going down the swatter. It just means maybe you need to take time out. Maybe you need to practice a little self care.

I liken it to a stew pot sitting on the stove. Whether it's chili or it's an Irish stew where I come from or whatever.

And, if you've got it bubbling really high, you throw in another potato, the whole thing just goes, shoo! And, we don't need that. We don't need everything on high alert the whole time. So if we turn down the heat a bit. It gives us enough contingency to go, oh, okay, throw in a carrot, throw in a potato.

It doesn't matter because we've got the space to cope with it. That often helps us. Just maybe turn the heat down a tiny bit.

Andy Earle: You were talking earlier about the one of the big issues between parents and teenagers often is that communication or, hey what's going on and them not really talking about it. I found this helpful page in your book talking about getting the information you need.

Cai Graham: This is an exercise, which is it's gold. It really is. And I've had so many parents going, Oh my God, I don't know what's happening in my house, but everything's calmed down.

One mum turned around and she said, I'm actually beginning to like my child again. Well, yes. They're not bad. It's just when everyone's walking on eggshells, it can be quite hard. If a kid comes in from school, the last thing they need is a needy parent standing there going, how was your day? Did you do okay? Did they speak to you? Goodness sake please just give me a break.

So this is an exercise called three questions which I basically say it's communicating with your child by talking less. Okay let's work that one out. It's three questions. Now the proviso here is that you need to tell your teen about this because otherwise they'll think you're bonkers and they don't know what you're talking about.

But the first question is What is your number? And it's really asking your teen on a scale of one to ten, one being really bad, possible dark thoughts, suicidal, to ten being, everything's rosy. I'm skipping through the tulips today. I do not need any support. I'm just having a lovely time. So between one and ten.

And that's an easy one for kids. They don't actually have to impart terribly much information, but it's a benchmark for the parents to realize, oh, okay, yesterday was a four, today's a five. We're going in the right direction. Now, I do hasten to add, first of all, only use this exercise about once a day, because if you're using it on the hour, every hour, it's, oh, please, not again.

Use it sparingly. And also remember one child's seven could be the equivalent to someone else's four. So don't think hang on a minute, Sophie was a seven and Jack's only a three. Each child is different.

So the first question, what is your number? Easy answer. The second question is, what is your word? And that basically is saying, give me a word that is describing how today is going for you or how you're feeling. And, meh and crap doesn't cut it because it's not very describing, so we've got to have something more than that.

The benefit of this is that the young person is now getting in touch with how they're feeling, and they're now being able to name their feelings, and they're now going to be slightly more aware of what's going on. Because usually it starts off with, I'm mad. Oh, okay. You were mad yesterday.

Is that the same or different? Oh this is different. My mad yesterday was because I got an F in math. Why are you mad today? Oh, because my mate let me down and they said that they were going to meet me at the bus stop and they didn't. Those are different words, really, aren't they?

It allows the child to describe what's going on and to put names to how they're feeling. Because a lot of the time we feel numb, a lot of the times we don't want to go there, a lot of the times we don't want to discuss these bad feelings. Now they're not so bad, they've just got a different name to them.

So that is a great way. So the parent now has, they're on a scale of one to ten and I've got the word and I can use that throughout the week to know if they're going in the right or the wrong direction. That's great. The third question is, do you want to talk? And 95 percent of the time you're gonna get no, no thanks, no you're fine.

No, and we have to abide by that. So you sit there and go, okay, that's fine, here if you need me. And the great thing is, and this is what many parents are finding is this exercise is being used on a daily basis, that their kids aren't running up to the room and hiding so much.

Why? Because when they come in from school, they know that they're not going to get the Spanish Inquisition. They know that it's safe to sit on the couch and watch a bit of TV. And mum or dad is not able to go, now tell me how it all went.

So they are able to sit at home, in the snug, in the den, without getting a barrage of, How was your day? So that's absolutely fine. Now, there is that 5 percent of the time, that your child might say, Yeah, okay. And what I implore parents to do is not jump on it immediately and go, Oh, I knew there was something wrong.

Now tell me all about it. Who was mean to you? What happened? No, no, no. Just back off and go right. This is my opportunity to support my child. How do I do this in a not very needy and desperate way? So the first thing we say is Is now a right time to talk or do you want to wait?

Or do you want to go for a drive? Or, okay, do you want to take the dog for a walk? Or will you come to me when you are ready? And so the gem about this is that our kids realize that we have got their back, realize that we are there. But they have control over the conversation rather than us trying to drag all this information out of them in a needy sort of imploring way.

I can tell you're not looking good. Please tell me so I can help you. Oh God no, just leave me alone. I didn't don't even know how to verbalize what's going on. So why would I want to share that with my parents? And the thing is, so when your child says yes, they would like to talk. Take a deep breath, wait, and ask them to say when they are ready.

Rather than give all the solutions, just sit and listen. Hear what's going on. And I know, us parents have been round the block. We know, we think we know all the answers. We don't. And also it's important that our kids find the answers themselves because that's when they learn the lessons and that's when they feel empowered.

Open questions like tell me more about that rather than are you okay which just gets a grunt. And trying to be curious about what's going on gives your child the opportunity to explore rather than to have everything labeled and sorted in their head because you'll probably find the first time that they're speaking to you, they might just be verbalizing it for the first time and they might just not be very good at getting their words out.

So kindness and compassion and take things very slowly is the way that you will make better inroads with your child.

Andy Earle: One I heard recently that I like is what was the hardest part about that for you? Another one I really liked was what Chris Voss told me was not to ask a question, but just to say, it sounds like you've really been thinking about that a lot.

Cai Graham: As parents we feel that we need to have all the answers. We feel that, it's our job to protect our child and to give them all the solutions so that life is easy. And yes, we want to support them.

Yes, we want to help them navigate the lumps and bumps of life. But we can't smooth out all those wrinkles. It's not actually our job. We're doing our kids a disservice if we spoon feed them. So I think the thing is giving our kids the opportunity to explore and to sort of work out what's going on in their own head.

And they'll get there. Maybe not as quickly as us. But they will learn that lesson better if they get there on their own, which is so important.

Andy Earle: I think this workbook is really helpful tool. I could definitely see this being really helpful for teenagers and for parents. It's called Fearless and Free: A Step by Step Blueprint to Conquer Anxiety. Cai, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Yeah, it's been really lively. I love the energy that you brought with you here.

And I'd love to talk a little bit about where people could go to get more updates from you or follow what you're working on and and see where to engage with you.

Cai Graham: You can grab this book on Amazon. So Fearless and Free, and you'll find it there.

But you can go onto my website, which is Cai Graham. com, C A I Graham. com. And that's where you can get ahold of me. But also for the parents I'm on Facebook. No self respecting teen is anywhere near Facebook. I appreciate that. And if you want also to find me, you can get me on Instagram as well.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Kai Graham, talking about how parents can get teenagers to open up and feel comfortable talking about their feelings of anxiety. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

What is the difference between anxiety and panic? We have anxiety attacks and panic attacks. Isn't that the same thing?

Cai Graham: We listen a lot to that internal dialogue in our head, and because we hear it the whole time, we tend to believe it.

And the trick is, the more you confront your fears, the more they go away.

What we tend to do is that we look at the urgent stuff, but not the important stuff. And the urgent stuff can be the tiny things that take up 10 minutes here or an hour there.

And they're an energy suck. Oh I've got to do all these things. Yeah. But don't forget, you've got that math test. And if you don't start revising now, you're going to get another F. And so what we should do is when we've got all this brain dump of stuff on our list is start prioritizing.

As parents we need to practice self compassion as well.

We need to ditch the parent guilt to say, do you know what? I am doing the very best I can for my child.

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Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Cai Graham
Cai Graham
Author : The TEEN Toolbox : Equipping Parents and Teenagers with the Tools to Navigate Adolescence
Ep 272: Helping Teens Discuss Anxiety
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