What Do I Say to My Anxious Teen?
The teenage years bring raging hormones, powerful emotions, a battle between individuality and peer acceptance, the pressure to meet the expectations of other people, while managing busy academic timetables, study time, rest and their social life, indeed, being a teenager can bring longer working hours than some adults endure, and, they don’t even get paid for it! It is no surprise that anxiety is growing rapidly in our teenagers. The questions is, what can we say, as parents, to ease through the walls of defense, and help our teenagers to manage anxiety and stress, and prevent this becoming out of control?
Does this scene seem familiar?
Your teenage daughter is packing her suitcase for the family holiday. Her room is a tip, and she is taking forever (again). The airport taxi is due to arrive in 5 minutes and she is not even dressed. You’re thinking, ‘We are going to miss the plane!’
Meanwhile, your daughter is consumed with her image in the mirror. She’s thinking, ‘There is no way I can wear this bikini on the beach, I look fat! I need new clothes!’
You start yelling at her to ‘hurry up!’. She screams, ‘God, you just don’t understand! Leave me alone!’ and turns the music up.
You wonder, ‘Why does she have to fight me on everything, why can’t she just be ready on time?’ The taxi arrives. She throws everything into the suitcase, puts on pair of jeans and gives you the silent treatment all the way to airport, while consumed in negative thoughts about how she looks, and what others on the beach will think.
In a situation like this, the daughter cares more about her appearance, how she feels in her body, and how others will judge her. The mother cares more about catching the plane. Here we different priorities playing out, based on strong personal values. There is no right or wrong, just differences. By understanding that we have different priorities, we can then learn how to communicate to ease conflict and reduce anxiety and stress.
Show that you understand. Try saying, ‘I understand how difficult it is for you when you don’t feel confident with how you look. If we talk about this now, we will miss the plane and I am sure you don’t want this. But, when we have settled into the hotel, let’s make some time to get you a new bikini that you feel comfortable in, and perhaps you have outgrown some of your summer clothes, so let’s go shopping together’.
Offer to help create a solution: ‘Let’s make some time to see if I can help you create some solutions to feeling better about yourself. You are a beautiful girl, and you deserve to be happy’ Offering to help create a solution helps teenagers to open up instead of feeling a need to be defensive. When you can understand the thoughts and beliefs she hold about herself, then you can help her to develop more positive and accepting perceptions.
Build her self-esteem: You can use encouragement to build up your teenager’s self-esteem, basing judgement on who they are as a person and the positive values they uphold. Work with acceptance to help her realise that sometimes we all get ‘fat days’, and that we can let it upset us or we can put our mind on other issues, because it’s how we choose to deal with it that determines how we feel, and feeling fat and bloated does not mean that you are. The key message is to love yourself as you are. This eases anxiety and promotes healthy thinking and behaviour.
Listen to what she is saying: When a young girl says, ‘I look fat in this’, you can say, ‘You look beautiful’, but this may fall on deaf ears, if the negative belief is deeply ingrained. What you can do, is apply logic. ‘Fat, compared to who, or what? Why are you comparing yourself to that person/cultural image, do you want to be like them, or do you want to be you, with all the beautiful and positive assets and attributes you have (and list them). Get your teen to think logically about the thoughts they are having, with the goal to replace ‘I look fat’ with ‘I love myself as I am’. (If they have unhealthy eating behaviors causing them to be underweight or overweight, this is another matter that requires other approaches and perhaps professional intervention).
Above all, do not react. Be mindful of your objective, and how what you say and do will influence how your daughter thinks and feels about herself. Sometimes, the best way to help teenagers, is for parents to have a few sessions with a coach or therapist, to gain some useful techniques to ease tension in the home, and support an anxious teenager.