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How to Help Teens Cope with Anxiety

Alicia Drummond explores the effects of the pandemic on our children, and what we can do to counter them

Many of us are finding the ride deeply uncomfortable, but it is proving particularly bumpy for our teenagers.

Living with uncertainty is not something us humans generally find easy. We like to be able to predict what is probable, we feel safer when we can make a plan, and we feel calmer when our lives have rhythm and structure. Life in the time of COVID-19 offers little in the way of predictability and stability, even our safety cannot be guaranteed. We are in transition, and many of us are finding the ride deeply uncomfortable, but it is proving particularly bumpy for our teenagers.

Why the pandemic has been hard for teens

Teenagers are missing rites of passage. They are missing cultural opportunities. They are missing hanging out with their friends.

When teens are in school, they are in bubbles. When the weren’t able to attend during lockdown, they were missing rites of passage. They were missing cultural opportunities. They were missing hanging out with their friends. Of course, it was temporary, but teens were missing the experiences which allow them to become more independent, which help them to find their adult identity and which spark joy.

Suddenly every piece of coursework, every test, every mock exam matters and the pressure must feel relentless.

Exams loom for teens

Suddenly every piece of coursework, every test, every mock exam matters and the pressure must feel relentless. And then there are the families who have had to manage all of this whilst supporting a child with mental health needs. For them, and for families in conflict, lockdown must have been a particular form of hell.

More teens are experiencing anxiety

A Gov UK report (Public Health England, 2020) shows there has been a significant minority of young people (43%) reporting increased feelings of anxiety as a result of Covid. The good news is that the majority are ok, and we are beginning to see that there might be an end to this nightmare, but what will its legacy be? We talk about returning to normal life, but what is normal? It can’t be the same as life before March 2020 because we can no longer live in ignorant bliss about the harm an animal market in China can wreak upon our world. Our confidence has been knocked, and as we pick up the pieces, we must expect this period of transition to be a long one, and for life to be anxiety inducing for some time to come.

Understand what causes anxiety in teens

Anxiety is a future-based emotion; it is worrying about what might happen. When anxiety strikes, and it can strike any of us at any time, it leads us to overestimate the threat whilst underestimating our capacity to deal with it. The “what ifs” start to mount up, and before we know it, we have fallen into the anxiety trap. So, what can we do to help ourselves stay calm and optimistic in these troubling times?

How to help teens cope with anxiety

Even during uncertain times, there are things we can do to help ourselves (and our teens) stay calm and optimistic in these troubling times?

  • Control the controllables. Worry comes in two forms; real problem worries and hypothetical worries. The real problem worries have solutions and if we take action, we will lessen our anxiety.
  • Cultivate acceptance. Dealing with hypothetical worries is harder because there is no obvious solution, and they tend to focus on the worse case scenario. Cultivating acceptance means learning to observe these uncomfortable thoughts rather than getting involved with them. If they were buses, we would watch them go past rather than jumping on board.
  • Ride the waves. When it comes to anxiety, avoidance does not work. If we can learn to sit with the anxious feelings, we will notice that there is always a peak and beyond the peak is the route back to calm.
  • Express yourself. Talk, write, draw, sing, play or act. Externalising thoughts helps us make sense of our situation and manage difficult emotions.
  • Live life in balance. When we exercise regularly, eat well, sleep well, get outdoors, engage in activities which engross us, work hard and socialise we lower cortisol levels and boost the production of the happy hormones, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine.
  • Plan for the future but live for today. There is nothing wrong with goals but the best way to achieve them is to focus on the journey because when we concentrate on the small steps, we are less likely to feel overwhelmed.
  • You are never too old to play. When life is serious it can be hard to give ourselves permission to play, but play is one of the best antidotes to stress. If all else fails, my recommendation is a pillow fight.

– Alicia Drummond

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