Written by Erin Johnson, M.A. LPC-intern with Watershed Initiative in Frisco, Texas, who specializes in working with girls who deal with disruptive anxiety.
Teen-anxiety . . . Is it a real thing? In short, yes.
For many of us, the word “teen” evokes its own onset of anxiety, whether as a parent, a teacher, a counselor, or in our own self-reflecting and empathetic memories. Today, it seems it’s an ever-increasing trend that the words “teen” and “anxiety” should become a new hyphenated paired word. Anxiety can present in so many ways from fits, tears, refusal, and isolation to full-on panic. Although many chalk it up to hormones, drama, or sometimes even immaturity, it seems we are seeing evidence of increasing anxiety in adolescence for boys and girls. Or maybe we are finally just starting to talk about it out loud.
As a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with teen girls and anxiety, I find most people profess to having a difficult time connecting with teens about this topic. They profess to having little success in making them do anything, even if it is beneficial to them. My response? Simply put, you can’t make them do anything. My counseling room is a space for people to be genuinely and safely accepted right where they are in life without judgement or agenda of forcing them to change. It is amazing how rare it is to find space like that for any of us, much less a teenager. Our job, at this developmental stage where teens are seeking autonomy and independence, is not to force change but to provide information, safe avenues, and reasoning for them to come to their own conclusions and ways to accomplish what is best for them. For me, I first confront anxiety by informing my clients (and many times parents or adults) about exactly what anxiety is. Many of us have heard “you have to name it to claim it.” The way to take a little bit of power away from anxiety is to see just what we are dealing with, to first take some of the anxiety out of anxiety itself.
Remember When . . .
Imagine back to the first time in your life when your heart started pounding, your palms started to sweat, your limbs began to get shaky, and you were barely able to catch your breath. Now maybe you were on a camping trip and found yourself face to face with a bear, or possibly just at school, facing the class bully in the cafeteria. In those circumstances, it’s possible for even children to wrap their heads around why everything within their bodies were starting to act out. But for most of us, we weren’t in front of a bear or about to get a fist in the face by the school bully. We were simply in front of someone we thought was cute, or afraid of getting put on the spot in front of actual living humans who might make fun of us, or sitting down for a test we were afraid of failing. Or maybe we don’t even really know what we were getting worked up about. Whatever was happening, we certainly didn’t understand exactly why our bodies were reacting this way and making everything even WORSE! Not only did we not know what was happening to us, but it seemed to be completely out of our control. So now, we begin to have anxiety about being under the spell of this anxiety that could embarrass and immobilize us at any moment. You get where I am going with this, right?
Now let’s take your average teenagers who come to you with this dilemma, and you try to tell them it is all going to be okay, they are probably overreacting, they need to just breathe or count to 10 and calm down in those moments and they will be just fine, because it is normal. I don’t know about you, but I am an adult and I would probably want to punch someone in the face if I was in the midst of an anxious reaction and the answer was to “just breathe.” If you have ever had any kind of relationship with a teen, you know they are usually only motivated to work at things they decide are worth it. So how do I get them on board and take some of the anxiety out of anxiety? I have to show them how and why it works.
God made our bodies, and they are incredibly intricate. I teach them how our bodies were designed to protect us, why our hearts pound and why we start to lose our breath. We go over all the physical symptoms that are possibly present with anxiety, as well as what is happening in our brains. When they have an understanding of what is happening and why, they are so much more able to understand how we can have some power over anxiety and what we can do to help it. I call this step one because I think it is a necessary step for all of us, especially teenagers, to gain a little bit of perspective, knowledge, and control over this scary thing called anxiety, so we can make a more open pathway to reason and truth.
“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control,” 2 Timothy 1:7.
When Anxiety Is a Problem
Anxiety is a normal feeling or reaction when it happens at appropriate or expected times. We will all feel anxiety at one point or another. If your or your child’s anxiety starts to interfere with day to day routines or expected personal milestones, or causes too much distress on your health or ability to function, then it has most likely become a problem. I encourage you to talk to your family doctor, a licensed professional counselor, or psychologist to learn more about your available options.
Parents, here is a wonderful online tool to help walk you through talking to your teens about anxiety: AnxietyBC Youth.
Erin Johnson, M.A. LPC-intern with Watershed Initiative in Frisco, Texas, received her undergraduate degree in Psychology from University of North Texas and a Master of Arts degree in Professional Counseling from Amberton University. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor intern supervised by Jeri Marshall, MA, LPC-S. Erin is passionate about working with individuals, couples, and adolescents struggling with family issues, relationship issues, anxiety, depression, grief and loss, addictions, trauma, parenting, women’s issues, and life transitions. She has conducted anxiety workshops for teen girls and also worked with youth and community groups within her church. Erin has been married to David Johnson for 18 years and has an 11-year-old daughter, Riley, and a 7-year-old son, Cole.
The Watershed Initiative was created with one goal in mind: Making a Difference by Cultivating Change in Our Community. We are a collaboration of therapists from various areas of specialties that are unified in our faith in Christ and a compelling drive to make a difference in the lives of individuals, couples, families, and their communities. Watershed Initiative does this by focusing on two areas of need: Wellness and Healing. You can learn more about us on our website, Watershed Initiative.