As a parent, I’m sure you’re always wondering how to help with your teen’s anxiety.
Does this sound familiar to you?
He walked in the house looking angry and gloomy.
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
“Nothing,” he answered, heading straight for his room.
He ditched his backpack by his bedroom door, put on his headphones, plugged them into his phone, and threw himself on the bed, staring up at the ceiling… where he continued to lay in the dark for the next hour or two.
Life with a moody teenager, right?
But what do you do when “normal” teenage moodiness crosses over into debilitating fear and anxiety?
What do you do when life, in general, seems to overwhelm your child?
Those are questions I posed to Dr. Vanessa Lapointe.
She is an author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist who has been supporting families and children for more than fifteen years.
Author of Discipline without Damage: How to Get your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up, a Huffington Post Parent blogger, and a consultant to research projects, Dr. Vanessa is known for bringing a sense of nurturing, understanding and humanity to all of her work.
Understand How Your Child’s Brain Works
“The basic premise is that when we can connect emotionally… with our children, we climb into the emotional regulatory core of the brain and calm that brain neurologically.
When the emotional regulatory core of the brain is activated, the outer layers of the brain, or the cortical layers, which actually house rational problem solving and thinking, no longer function.
So when a child is engaged in some kind of a challenging behavior, we also know that they have, what we call, flipped their lid.
The cortical, outer layers of the brain have ceased to function, which is why we say ‘flipped their lid.’ They can’t think.
We also know through neuroplasticity that as a child gets fired up and dysregulated, that when adults respond with emotional presence and empathy and compassion they settle that brain… [so] through neuroplasticity that brain by design is going to be very good over time at self-regulation and impulse control.
Being able to integrate emotion so that your child can make good choices.
All of the things that we hope for. It’s through our compassionate responding that they’re able to come online and grow and mature into that kind of brain.
Now go to traditional responses to discipline: timeouts, consequences, removal of privileges, and even reward systems. When we go to the core of every one of those approaches to discipline, they have ‘disconnect’ at their core…
What calms the brain? Connection, not disconnection.
Yes, on the outside they will appear to cease the behavior. They will do so because they are so desperate to get back in our good graces and restore the connection. You will for a time being have secured better behavior, but it will have come at a cost. And the cost is that it will have sacrificed your child’s regulation and your child’s need for connection, all in the name of good behavior.
On the other hand, if we can trust that the brain actually wants to grow… we can come alongside development and champion it and figure out how we as adults can hold boundaries and have expectations and rules… and not be awful to them.”
Be Constantly in Tune with Your Child’s Emotional State
“How big you come on with your boundaries and your rules and your norms and your expectations is really going to flow from where is your child at, [mentally and emotionally].
I have two boys who are age 10 and almost 14 years old. My youngest son has struggled in a lot of ways. He’s a really sensitive guy and so the world is sort of an offensive place for him to be sometimes. And he has this incredible exceptional brain. He’s remarkably intelligent and has struggled with certain aspects of learning.
So, life for him at times has felt big and overwhelming and incredibly challenging. And when he’s locked down in that most intense place of need, I am not going to have a war about whether he’s eating his broccoli for dinner…
And so at that point, if he’s locked down and really overwhelmed by life, my expectations around certain aspects of his existence are going to be really toned down because I’m going to be going for creating an environment of safety and connection. And if I’m constantly at war with him about things that really in the picture don’t matter, it’s going to make our relationship take a hit and because the relationship isn’t working, he won’t be able to come to a place where he’s an emotionally settled boy.
And then there have been… times when he’s really been thriving, so the coming back online with ‘these are the expectations in this home and this as a family is how we do things’ gets bigger when I know he’s capable.
If we find that a child is thriving and is doing well and isn’t overwhelmed by life, we can confidently surge forward. And really at that point, you define the boundary, you put it in place and then you hold the line, with compassion.”
Be Aware of the Story You’re Telling
All of life is made up.
It’s one big story that we tell ourselves, and out of the big stories that we tell ourselves, we pass along those stories to our children.
If, as human beings, we are amassing this longer and longer list of fears the older that we get, and alongside all of that fear, we’re shutting down our creative, emergent selves, then we need to ask ourselves, what’s our story?
What’s happening behind the scenes that we’ve come into all of this? We’re making it all up. The mind sees what the mind wants to see.
So, for our children, yes, give them a sense of awareness.
Safety in their surroundings.
Explain that there are ways that we do business.
For example, when we are in a grocery store, we stay close to mom… Not because ‘if you don’t stay close, then so and so is going to steal you,’ but because this is how we do things.
What’s the story that we’re telling ourselves, and then out of those stories what are the stories that we are narrating for our children and the reality that they are being marinated in?
What are the stories that we tell ourselves that then infuse the way that we parent our children? And then in our actions, what then are the stories that our children pick up on that then infuse the way they understand the world?
It all comes down to the story.
I have a purple couch in my office, and I’ll say to my clients, especially parent clients, ‘You’re sitting on a purple couch. Tell me what you think about the purple couch.”
And most people, because they’re really lovely, will say ‘Oh I really like it.’
And I’ll say, ‘Oh, tell me about that.’
And they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s a nice shade of purple and it matches all the other purple accents in the office…blah, blah, blah.’
And I said, ‘Yeah, you just made that up.’
And they say, ‘What?!’
And I say, ‘You’re sitting on a purple couch. It’s kind of a pukey shade of purple, actually. It’s not very bold. It’s sort of a really watered down, washed out shade of purple. And who decorated this office anyway?
Everything is so matchy-pants. Obviously, you went to some matchy-pants store where they had the purple shelf with all the purple accents that you could get your hands on. And barfed them up all around this office.
Couldn’t you be a little more organic and a little more eclectic in our decorating tastes?’
And they’re looking at me like, ‘Huh?’
And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I just made that up.’
You can see the purple couch as something that’s working for you, or you can see the purple couch as something that’s horrible.
So what wolf are you going to feed?
Are you feeding the wolf fear and lack and upset or do you feed the wolf love and abundance and safety?
Address Fear and Teens’ Anxiety with Baby Steps
Step 1: What are you afraid of?
“If you have teens with anxiety or a child who’s fearful, ask yourself what are you afraid of? Where do you have a fear program going on inside of you?
Which isn’t to blame the parents.
My own children struggle with anxiety at different points and I feel like I’m a pretty Rockstar parent. A hot mess on some days to be sure, but a Rockstar parent most of the time. And so, I would suggest to look inside and ask, do I have that fear running in me?
Step 2: Intervene As Much as Possible
The second step is to come alongside the child and make sure that, as much as possible, you’ve intervened.
So, they say that my youngest son has a learning disability.
I say he has a learning exceptionality and exceptional children with exceptional brains require exceptional parents and exceptional teachers.
And so, what have I done in his life to come alongside the things that are incredibly challenging for him? Have I stepped in and stepped up and stepped in front of enough so that his tank is full enough that he can take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life as a kid?
And for him that meant that I really needed to look at, educationally, what environments were we putting him into and what in those environments could we tweak and work or what was unworkable? And ultimately, we moved him to a school that is set up for kids with brains like his and he’s thriving and curiously you see that a lot of the anxieties and behaviors that he held onto beforehand are just kind of melting away.
We haven’t treated those things directly, we went to the source of the issue, which was that his life overwhelmed him, that the environments he found himself in weren’t working for him. And in getting his world working for him, all of that just ceases to be an issue.
Step 3: Start to Challenge Your Child
The next thing would to look at, now that you have this really regulated kid, how do you begin to challenge him a little bit.
Not big challenges, but little tiny baby step challenges, so he starts to see for himself and have this sense of empowerment in himself.
So he can understand, sometimes this isn’t going to work out, but sometimes it IS going to work out, and I actually created that.
And then the big things come after we’ve practiced with all of the baby steps… And then before you know it, we’ve awakened in them a courage, which means they are still afraid, but they will do it anyway.
Which means they will ultimately overcome the things that so alarm them. And you may have never even directly treated the fear of flying, for example, but in settling them around everything else, they’re able now to take that piece on.
So it’s a little bit about tackling things directly, but it’s also about environmentally, what are they marinating in?
How have we addressed all of those pieces and then how do we find our way forward?”
There’s obviously no Perfect Guide to Parenting. Every teen is different and what works for one may not work for the next. But approaching their fears with compassion and understanding will go a long way toward helping them to conquer those fears.
And it never hurts to remind them of the courage it takes to face ones fears.
As Dr. Vanessa said, Courage is “not to not be afraid. It’s to say hello to your fear, and step in front of your fear and do it anyway.”