Anxiety: Helping teenagers to help themselves

As Parents or Carers, our natural instinct is to rush in and support or help our children and teens through every problem and challenge by solving the issue. It is only natural, we are problem solvers and are always keen to ensure that our children, no matter how old, are happy and feel supported. This article looks at why it is important to equip your children and teens with the understanding of their own needs applying learnt skills and knowledge. We need to support our teens and children to be able to help themselves and become independent.

How can we help them to help themselves?

We can support our children by scaffolding ways they can help themselves whilst being mindful that we aren’t doing it for them. Scaffolding is a way of modelling and showing your children how best to approach something. You can talk them through the challenge and provide guidance on what steps might be worth considering:

Be present

Ensure you are able to be there for your child both physically and emotionally. Create that safe space for them to know that they can speak to you and open up. Providing this space will allow them the beginning of being able to support themselves whilst knowing that you are there. Knowing that you are present can provide your child with the comfort and courage they need to take this step of independence. Being present isn’t always just about physically being there, it is important to provide comfort and support for your child emotionally where you listen to understand and try to reserve your judgements or preconceived ideas. Remind your child that you love them no matter what, they sometimes benefit from this reminder and try to resist the temptation to say “I told you so”. Children and teenagers need empathy from us as adults and a reassuring gesture or conversation with you acknowledging that something didn’t go quite to plan is OK and that you are there to listen whilst they dust themselves off and go again. Ask open ended questions to enable your child or teen to explore suggestions or to talk themselves through ideas and potential solutions and allow them to share the little things that might seem big things to them. Older children and teenagers have their own opinions and will want to share them with us, listen to these and approach with curiosity asking “why” or “I what would happen if…” rather than dismissing their point of view.

Get Enough Sleep

No child or teen wants to hear this but sleep is so important. No, it’s not “cool” for your teens to have maximum sleeping hours and your younger children might experience FOMO when it is time for their bed, spurring them to engage in full on deep conversations in a bid to delay their sleep. Sleep needs to be prioritised in a teen’s schedule, explain why sleep is important and allow them to learn this by experience. Suggest they keep a diary or a mood journal to document the days when they have had more or less sleep, taking in to consideration how they feel and whether they felt prepared for challenges that day. Let them learn the impact sleep can have on their overall mood and productivity throughout the day, they don’t always want to hear it from us. Dealing with tired children and teenagers can be a challenge and those who are feeling anxious can become angry towards the end of the day. It is OK to walk away from a situation you feel is escalating with your child becoming angry, allow yourself time and space to feel calm, address these issues during a conversation when both parties are calm and it is OK to agree to disagree. There might be times, with teenagers, when it is better to reflect the following morning when tempers aren’t flared and minds are more open to others’ opinions. Try not to argue back but to raise issues through debating each side and hearing the other person in the conversation. Having an open mind can help a teen to find their own way with a solution or a challenge. Look at the sleeping environment, is the room dark or cool enough? If you can, try to separate the room into sections for play and for rest and sleep, their bed should be for sleeping in and not a base for gaming or playing. As adults, we are role models to our children, whether they like it or not (as they get older) it would be good for us to reflect on our sleeping habits and lead by example; it’s a do as I do, not as a I say lesson on this occasion.

Let it all out

Find a way that best suits your child or teen. Do they like writing, speaking or engaging in other creative ways to let their thoughts and anxieties out? It isn’t always about talking, for a child or teen to be able to help themselves, they need to explore ways that make them feel comfortable to share their problems. It is good to share before an issue becomes a “thing” as this is when they are more open to support and are more able to help themselves. Share with them how you share your thoughts or anxieties, is there a particular way that you can share with them? Allow them to explore all the different ways to share their anxieties until they find a method that is the best fit for them. Brain dumping is a great way to let it out whether it is through writing, speaking or typing encourage your child or teen to record what they are feeling without taking time to pause or edit. If they can, this can be for 3-5 mins of just recording thoughts you both will be amazed at what comes out and the impact this can have when it is something they have shared. Do bear in mind that with older children and teenagers, they may not want to share the brain dump with you and it is important that we respect that and their privacy. If we are able to show them that we respect their wishes, it might make your teen more inclined to open up on other things that might be bothering them. If they do choose to share their thoughts with you, this is a big indication of the trust they have in you and it is important to acknowledge this with them.

Gaining control

Explore what your child or teen can control within a situation that feels bigger than them. What are the things they can change or control? Within the context of the environment, there are many big conversations within this subject with the majority being something that is beyond our control. Break down the situation or the issue, using the environment as an example discuss ways that your child or teen can do something to make that small change and therefore gain a little control? Reducing plastic usage or recycling are achievable ways to make changes to the environment and this is something that can be accessed by your child or teen within the wider concept of environmental damage. Whilst it can be reassuring to gain achievable control within a situation, it is important to be mindful of the need to be able to tolerate and acceptable the uncontrollable: There might be things that we can’t change and your child or teen will need to learn to accept this. This might cause anxiety for your child or teen and whilst this is not something you want your children to go through, it is important that they build up a tolerance and acceptance that they may not be able to control or change every scenario. If this happens, ensure you are there for them and provide them with that safe space and with a clear mind. We are always able to control how we feel and how we approach a situation even if we aren’t able to change it so this is something you can remind your child or teen about when they are struggling with the acceptance of things that can’t be changed. Introducing breathing techniques can help your child or teen take a moment to accept what can’t be changed and allows them to act on how they can approach and feel about the situation. Taking time to breath can help calm the body and in turn, calm the mind. If something is really triggering anxiety within your child, small distraction techniques can help to change their focus and move on to something else that might feel less overwhelming. Mindfulness is a great way to support this as it will allow your child to notice their thoughts and let them go because there isn’t too much that can be done about these on this occasion.

Take that thought to court

Challenging negative thoughts can be an effective way to enable your child or teen to support themselves. Challenge the thought you have; it is accurate or true? What are the facts to back up this thought? Recognize when your child or your teen are feeling down on themselves and pick up on it, they may need your support or for you to role model taking a negative thought to court.

Work out what fits for you, your child or your teen. Be kind to yourself and allow each other time to talk and explore what works best.

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