5 Tips for Communicating Effectively With Your Anxious Teen

As academic coaches, we get the honor of guiding our students as they navigate a wonderfully exciting time. We get a front row seat to their successes in the classrooms and beyond. In our role, we’ve also seen firsthand the mounting anxiety that many of these teens experience – an almost inevitability when we consider how much they have on their plate during this chapter of their lives. For parents, helping your children handle added stressors can be difficult, especially if they’re hesitant to open up. If you’re struggling with talking to your teen about anxiety, try using these five tips to communicate more effectively.

Understand that stress and anxiety manifest in different ways.

When you hear the word “anxiety,” you may picture someone nervously biting their nails, pacing back and forth, or sweating bullets. In the real world, that’s not always what anxiety looks like. In fact, sometimes anxiety looks like harsh words, emotional outbursts, withdrawing, and procrastinating on schoolwork. Sometimes, when your teen is at their most unlikable, they need a little kindness and a listening ear more than ever.

In fact, the Child Mind Institute likens the teenage years to the terrible twos. Just like when they were a toddler, your child is testing your limits and pushing for their independence. That certainly doesn’t mean they don’t need you, and it doesn’t mean your role in their life isn’t more important than ever. Try to be patient, and remember that any unpleasant behavior is often indicative of how unpleasant they feel themselves.

Validate their feelings.

I remember once, in high school, I was absolutely consumed with stress over a variety of things: finals, college decisions, relationships, the usual. A less-than-supportive family friend told me, “You’re stressed?! You don’t have bills to pay, or children to care for, or any other real stress!” This memory stuck with me because I remember feeling so much worse after this exchange – not only did I feel demeaned, but I felt stressed about my own level of stress!  

It’s important that when talking to your teen about anxiety, you don’t make them feel silly or dramatic – even if you can’t totally understand or relate to your child’s stress. After all, it’s not as if they chose to feel that way. Instead of downplaying their emotions, empathize with them. This will allow them to feel safe and heard, which can often help alleviate stress in itself.

Create organic situations for communication.

In other words, give them plenty of natural opportunities to open up to you. Every single evening, without fail, parents all over the country ask their high schoolers how school was that day. And every single evening, without fail, their children respond, “Fine.” Not exactly a heart-to-heart.

Instead of expecting your child to open up at the drop of the hat, create situations where they can speak freely and comfortably. The conversations are more likely to flow as you prepare dinner together, or drive somewhere, or go on a long walk.

And though it can be tempting, don’t bombard your child with questions as you spend time together – who wants to be interrogated while they’re relaxing? Remember, even if they don’t spill their guts, simply spending quality time with you is a stress relief.

Speak openly about anxiety.

It’s important that your child understands anxiety – both typical, day-to-day levels and anxiety disorders – is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of. By talking to your teen about anxiety openly and sympathetically, your teen will see firsthand that it’s nothing to hide, and may feel more comfortable discussing their own experiences with you.

I had a massive panic attack during my senior year of high school, to the point that I headed straight for the school nurse, convinced I was having a medical emergency. When I learned what it was, I was mortified and humiliated. My mom quickly explained that I had nothing to be embarrassed over, and, just like getting a physical illness, having panic attacks didn’t mean I was weak or crazy. She spoke honestly about her own experiences with anxiety and stress, and that allowed me to confide in her.

Know when to intervene.

While anxiety is not uncommon in high schoolers, it doesn’t mean it’s normal for it to be drastically impacting their quality of life or interfering with their day-to-day. Be observant, and also trust your gut as their parent. If your teen’s eating or sleeping habits have changed, they’re partaking in dangerous or unhealthy behaviors, or you simply feel like their anxiety is getting out of control, it’s important to take action as their parent.

While it’s not always an easy process, encouraging your teen to speak to a therapist can be extremely important and useful in these situations. This blog post a really excellent resource for parents who believe their child would benefit from therapy but aren’t quite sure how to initiate that process.