Anxiety in Children and Adolescents: How to respond?

Ideas for getting a reluctant teenager to see a therapist
17th May 2018
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Anxiety in Children and Adolescents: How to respond?

Anxiety in Children and Adolescents:  How to respond?

Many parents are unsure how to respond when their child is showing signs of anxiety. Of course every child is different and so you should explore with your psychologist the cause of the anxiety to work out the appropriate intervention. However, what we do know is that responding with anxiety isn’t helpful. This might be tricky, as what your child or young person is telling you may cause anxiety! Or you might over-identify with your child’s feelings, imagining what it’s like when you are scared and putting intense adult complex emotions into what are sometimes childish fears. But when you respond with your own feeling, this may not consider what the child needs. This may mean:

  • They may be less likely to tell you in future in something is bothering them (they might not want to worry you)
  • It may increase their anxiety about what they are telling you (e.g. the belief that if Mum and Dad are worried then this must be serious and something which should be worried about)
  • You may miss what the young person needs from you, as you are too focussed on your own emotions

Children need to feel as though their parents are able to cope with the content of what they are telling them. Children and young people are great fantasists and they can often worry that if they open up to Mum and Dad about what they feel it may worry them, make them ill, or destroy them! This means they may be less likely to be open with you, and bottle up their anxieties (which may be manifested as avoidance, anger, nightmares etc)

We are not suggesting you are a ‘blank slate’ and don’t show any reaction to what your child is telling you. However, try to make sure your response is geared towards what your child needs, as opposed to what is going on for you emotionally.

Often your child may need:

  • You to remain calm. Frustration, anxiety, shouting… these are all things which won’t help the interaction and won’t help your child to continue to be open
  • A listening ear. Before you jump in with questions, hear what they are telling you. Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Empathy and understanding. Try to see things from their perspective. They do not have the sophisticated thought systems of adults- their brains are still in development. Particularly during adolescence brains undergo a period of rapid development and they are more likely to take risks to satisfy this area of their brain
  • Curiosity- not an interrogation! Explore what they are anxious about, calmly, curiously. Don’t presume you know what they are thinking!
  • Collaborative problem solving. Don’t do this too early! Often young people just want to be heard and if you do this too soon it can feel as though you aren’t listening. After really understanding the difficulty, try to think together about what can be done. Write pro’s and con’s lists, draw different scenarios, ask what they would advise others to do in this situation- get creative!
  • Containment. The knowledge that you can cope with what they are telling you, you are not overwhelmed, and you are able to support them to process the events and emotions.

And finally, try not to be tempted to collude with the anxiety! For example, if your child’s anxiety starts to impact upon their functioning, and they are starting to avoid certain things which is becoming problematic (e.g. school, seeing friends, food) it can be tempting to allow this. Parents are often well intended, as it can be distressing to see your young person upset. But if you allow your child to avoid the feared thing, it reinforces the anxiety, making it harder in the long run.

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