Ep 10: Help Teens Cope with Anxiety

Karen Young, founder of the immensely popular psychology blog "Hey Sigmund" talks about how to help teens with anxiety. It starts with listening and not trying to convince them that their feelings are “no big deal”. Then we should teach them about anxiety and how to cope with it.

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Full show notes

An uneasy feeling in their stomach on the way to school. Sweaty hands when they greet their peers. A pounding heartbeat as they’re asked to speak up in front of their class. We all experience some level of anxiety, but for 1 out of every 8 kids, it’s a serious struggle. Nobody likes feeling this way. Luckily, we know how to help a teenager with anxiety.

However, if these symptoms are left untreated in teens, they can develop over time to cause a whole host of problems. In fact, unchecked anxiety can cause your teen to underperform on their exams and prevent them from reaching out to peers and teachers. Even more seriously, overwhelming chronic anxiety can cause your teen to lose their appetite and develop regular cramps and migraines.

So, what can we do to understand how to help a teenager with anxiety?

This week on the podcast I got some incredible insights from Karen Young. After earning an Honors degree in Psychology and a Masters in Gestalt Therapy, Karen spent years working as a therapist helping families and individuals cope with anxiety. In 2016, she published, Hey Warrior, a book for kids about understanding what anxiety is and how to deal with it. Now she runs the immensely popular website, www.heysigmund.com, where her articles have been published on various international sites including Parenting Magazine, The Good Men Project, The Huffington Post, The Mighty, and Yahoo Health.

She founded the website after realizing there was a need for accessible content about anxiety for parents and teens online. Since then, Karen’s work has been translated into a number of languages and read by millions of parents and teenagers around the world. If anyone knows how to help a teenager with anxiety, it’s Karen.

Karen’s research in psychology led her to produce a comprehensive system for dealing with anxiety. She found that understanding how the science works and informing your teen about coping strategies is how to help a teenager with anxiety. There are three key steps to Karen’s method:
  1. Validate your teen by taking their problems seriously
  2. Teach your teen about why anxiety occurs, and its potential outcomes
  3. Help your teen practice coping mechanisms
These methods can help your teen get anxious symptoms under control and even reverse the effects of stress. During the podcast, Karen walked me through how to help a teenager with anxiety using these steps and how they can be applied at home today! Here’s a peek into the process:

How to Help a Teenager with Anxiety: Getting Started

One of the most common emails that Karen receives from teens about their experience with anxiety is that their parents don’t take them seriously. When teens feel sick before an exam, parents might think their child is lying to get out of a problem at school. Other times, parents might dismiss their child’s concerns by saying, “Everything will be okay. It’s no big deal.” This often occurs because parents want to minimize the effect of anxiety rather than amplify these feelings by calling attention to them.

Knowing how to help a teenager with anxiety requires parents to listen to their kids and validate their feelings. At such an important time when adolescents are going through massive changes in their lives, it might seem like they’re blowing every situation out of proportion. But when you tell them, “I understand, please tell me more,” they know you’ve got their back and are taking what they’re saying seriously. If your teen feels heard, they’ll trust you with what’s going on in their life.

When addressing your child’s anxiety, trust allows you to get to the root of their problem. This gives you information about what’s causing your teen’s anxiety, and you can address these problems together.

Even when your teen doesn’t know what’s causing their anxiety, having a parent to consistently talk to can help. The next step is helping them understand what anxiety is.

How to Help a Teenager with Anxiety: Teaching Your Teen

To know how to help a teenager with anxiety, it’s important for both parents and teens to understand that anxiety is actually here to help us. Anxiety is what we call a stress response. Sometimes, it’s helpful when you need to make that last basket in a game. The problem is, anxiety also over-prepares us. We’re not running from lions and tigers and bears (oh my). Today, that same stress response fires unnecessarily during exams, interviews, and public speaking. In essence, our brain is doing too much work.

When we feel those tingly feelings, that’s just our brain thinking all threats are tigers, so it tells us we need to get into fight-or-flight mode. More specifically, our brain surges with neurochemicals and wants to get them to our arms and legs as fast as possible. This is why our hearts beat faster and our hands and legs feel shaky in the face of “danger.” We start to take short, shallow breaths instead of normal, steady ones.

All together, these physical symptoms can make you even more anxious. Feeding into the mindset of “there must be something bad about to happen,” the whole process turns into a cycle that starts all over again from the start.

According to Karen, there are two key messages parents should know when it comes to how to help a teenager with anxiety:
  1. The physical symptoms of anxiety are a trick
    When kids experience aches and pains before an important event, most of the time, nothing bad is about to happen. Their brain just thinks something’s about to happen. This response is our brain’s way of getting us ready for action. Once kids understand why they feel that way, they can be less worried about what’s going on.
  2. The prefrontal cortex is offline
    This is the more evolved part that analyzes problems with logic, reasoning, and thinks about consequences. The fight-or-flight part of the brain that is triggered by anxiety is in the amygdala, or the core of the brain. When the amygdala is triggered, it grabs attention away from all the other parts of the brain including the prefrontal cortex.
Any process that isn’t absolutely essential in the moment shuts down. Not completely, but it just softens. It’s important for teens to know this because it helps them understand why they performed so poorly on their test despite studying all week and knowing the material.

When parents and teens know why anxiety is caused, it takes away a lot of the mystery behind these physical symptoms. This can then help you and your child anticipate some of the outcomes of anxiety and prepare the appropriate coping mechanisms.

How to Help a Teenager with Anxiety: Practice, Practice, Practice!

In the podcast, Karen provides a number of coping mechanisms that can help your teen when they start feeling the symptoms of anxiety. She says that the best response for parents wondering how to help a teenager with anxiety is giving kids the tools to be the boss of their own brain; don’t let it decide what the threat is and how you’re going to respond. One of the most effective techniques to be the boss of your own brain is managing how you breathe.

The very first thing that happens when you feel anxious is your heart rate picks up and your breathing changes into short, sharp breaths. In order to help you become the boss of your own brain and switch your thinking mechanism back online, you need to steady your breath. But, it can be hard for teens to settle down and practice. Thankfully, Karen offers a few ways to cope that use a 3-1-3 breathing count:
  1. Figure 8’s
    If kids prefer a physical reminder to calm down, they can imagine a sideways eight and trace it with their finger. They hold their breath for three seconds as they draw the loop and hold their breath in the middle for one second. It might sound like this practice is for kids, but Karen’s daughter learned it as a child and still uses it in her late teenage years.
  2. Hot Cocoa
    Tell your teen to imagine that they have a warm cup of cocoa in front of them. All they have to do is breathe in and smell the drink for three long seconds and cool it down with an out-breath for one.
This whole process of getting your breath under control neutralizes the chemicals that are flying through your body. When you get your breathing to be steady, it reverses these negative symptoms and we start to feel okay.

There are so many more techniques that Karen shares with me. For her full insight, be sure to tune in with your teen and listen to the full podcast! In addition to Karen’s robust approach to how to help a teenager with anxiety, listeners will discover:
  • Initiating conversations about anxiety
  • How to recover after dismissing your teen
  • The importance of limiting conversations about anxiety
I’m thankful that Karen shared her insight with me this week about how to help a teenager with anxiety. She has an abundance of wisdom for parents to learn from, and amazing, practical tools to help teens deal with anxiety in any situation. I found Karen’s advice to be relatable and enlightening and I know you will, too!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Karen Young
Karen Young
Founder https://t.co/ewHe4YsEF5 - 'Where the science of psychology meets the art of being human'.
Ep 10: Help Teens Cope with Anxiety
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