During puberty, adolescents have the daunting task of separating from their parents and preparing to meet adult challenges, and this while undergoing profound physical, hormonal, and neurological changes. Adolescents often swing from adult behavior to child-like behavior and back in a rapid cycle. This seeming split in personality can be perplexing and frustrating to the adolescent and her parents, even though it’s a part of normal pubescent behavior. The following is a parent’s guide to managing anxiety associated with this frustrating time.
Causes of Teenage Anxiety
Teenagers develop a more complex set of emotions due to chemical and neurological changes, but the coping strategies to manage these powerful feelings often lag behind. As a result, many teens find it next to impossible to process their feelings verbally or express them appropriately. Even the most supportive parents can have a tough time getting their teenager to open up. Teens whose emotions are percolating in new and frightening ways often isolate themselves in their rooms and sometimes refuse to participate in family activities.
Another “symptom” of adolescence is the parental fall from the pedestal. Teens begin to see their parents not as heroes, as they did in childhood, but as people with problems, faults, and inadequacies. Some teens process this disillusionment in terms of betrayal, i.e. “my parents were fooling me all along.” The result is often anger and irritation.
Physical, emotional, and neurological changes make fitting in both a top priority and a terrifying challenge for adolescents. Self-esteem, identity questions, dating, complex school work, and a myriad of other challenges can seem overwhelming for teenagers. This complex and sudden chaos of change can lead to extreme anxiety for young people.
But the teen herself isn’t the only one deeply impacted, perhaps even traumatized, by the suddenness of these changes. Parents typically experience feelings of loss during their child’s entry into puberty, wondering, “Who is this stranger in my house?” Parents may feel rejected by their teen and unintentionally withdraw emotional support or become angry and critical. When this occurs, adolescents feel even more alone and their anxiety can skyrocket. Some teenagers react by staying away from home as much as possible. They might attempt to recreate a sense of family with a circle of friends or may turn to alcohol or drugs. Even parents who have consistently reached out to their teens to offer support and assistance may find themselves rebuffed.
Being a Resource for Your Teen
Despite the challenges and heartache of this developmental transition, parents can still be an effective resource for their adolescent children. The first step in becoming an effective resource for your child, however, is to accept the fact that he or she has changed. You’ve lost your little girl or your little boy and need to mourn that loss. The relational vacuum created by an adolescent pulling away from her parents is bound to be painful. Some parents react in anger; others attempt to retain a level of control over their teen that is unrealistic and counterproductive. Regardless of natural inclination, however, there are ways for the self-aware parent to fill this vacuum in positive ways. Some engage this vacuum as an opportunity to re-engage their spouse, engage in personal growth or therapy, or spend more time with their social network. This is a perfect time for parents to re-engage neglected interests and/or pursue their own process of personal growth.
Teens sometimes respond as if they don’t want their parents to be part of their lives. However, an important part of managing anxiety is they still need to know they are loved and valued. An unforced message that the parent is emotionally available, therefore, is crucial. In addition, it is important for parents to realize that though puberty is the beginning of the end of the parent-child relationship, it can be the beginning of a healthy adult-adult relationship. Losses, when addressed in a healthy way, can create space and opportunity for other good things to enter our lives. Parents who retain this long-term perspective have a better chance of weathering their child’s adolescence effectively–in a way that will set the foundation for a stronger adult-adult relationship.
It is easy, but self-defeating, for parents to prioritize their own feelings of loss above their feelings of empathy for their teenager. Parents who withdraw in kind may end up sabotaging their opportunity to participate in this difficult but critical developmental milestone; parents who push too hard for engagement may inadvertently drive their child further away. Because it’s easy to err in one direction or the other, it’s important to remain aware and flexible. Adolescents may feel intimidated by face-to-face discussions but might still enjoy going to a movie together or having parents attend their sporting events or other activities. It’s important to be experimental, open, and responsive- rather than reactive- during these challenging years.
Other Strategies for Managing Anxiety
It is vital to keep the lines of communication open with your adolescent, even when this is difficult. One rule of thumb is that if your teen is saying something that seems irrational, she is probably talking about feelings. One common lament of adolescents about their parents is that “you don’t understand me!” or, “you don’t listen to me!” If your teen complains that you are not listening and becomes escalated, try a classic counseling skill called active listening. Reflect what your child is saying back to them in your own words and ask if your understanding is correct; this conveys to your child that you are listening and helps ensure that you really are “getting it.”
Active listening requires a sincere desire to understand and a willingness to delay efforts at problem solving or advice. Done well, it is an effective tool for managing anxiety. It can have a calming effect and can help you and your child feel more connected. If, despite your best efforts at active listening, your child still feels that you still don’t understand her, it can be helpful to closely inspect what you are saying and how you are saying it. Sometimes this is best done with a third party such as a spouse or a therapist. Then you can make the necessary changes in your approach.
Adolescents often balk at or argue about rules and boundaries. Though it appears they dislike limits, they feel much calmer when parents can be consistent in this area. This creates safety and helps teens feel that their parents love and care about them. As mentioned earlier, adolescents will be more likely to follow rules when they have input regarding the limits and consequences.
So despite, or perhaps because of, the incredible volume and rate of change that occurs during this time, adolescence can be an incomparably rich personal growth opportunity not only for the teen herself, but for her parents as well. Just remember these tips for managing anxiety.
Judy L. Erickson, LMFT is a therapist at New Haven Residential Treatment Center, part of the InnerChange family of adolescent treatment programs.