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  • Dr. Terri Bacow

When Your Teen Worries Too Much

The adolescent years are fraught with anxiety. The social pressures that young people face are huge, and that makes their feelings of insecurity run very high. There is so much pressure on teens these days to be perfect—to look perfect, act perfect, and present a perfect picture of their lives to the world—and if not, to change yourself! This is an impossible standard that is made even more intense by social media. Add in a life-changing global event (the emergence of Covid-19) and we end up with a lot of stressed out teens who are in need of relief!

Anxiety is the number one condition that is diagnosed by psychologists and psychiatrists. It is incredibly common, and especially common in young people—with adolescence the peak moment for experiencing the onset of problematic anxiety. Scientists report that anxiety increases significantly between the ages of twelve and seventeen—and that almost a third of adolescents ages thirteen to eighteen have an anxiety disorder.

Anyone who has experienced some anxiety in childhood (and who hasn’t?) is likely to find that the stresses of puberty, the teen years, or young adulthood can create a tipping point. In my years as a therapist, I have discovered that adolescents and young adults are not only very frequently anxious, they also seem to experience anxiety more intensely than those

who are older or younger.

If you have noticed that your tween or teen runs anxious, what to do? How to help them?

First, let them know that anxiety is extremely normal. If you feel comfortable, share a story of a time you yourself were quite anxious (after all, anxiety is a common, adaptive emotion that none of us can escape). After sharing a personal anecdote of a time you yourself were very worried (whether or not it turned out okay, and, the more absurd your worry was at that time, the better) consider taking this next step:

Hand your teen a book! (Or, surreptitiously place it on their desk.)

Which book is this, you may ask?

Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry is a wonderful option. I wrote it in the summer of 2020, with the goal of reaching as many stressed out teens as possible. The book is colorful and disarming. The tone is light and warm. Relatable examples from movies, music and other forms of pop culture are woven throughout. And, Goodbye, Anxiety does something great: it allows teens to vent/dump/get all their worries out on paper AND learn anxiety management tools at the same time!

While never a replacement for therapy (and you should definitely encourage your teen to go to therapy if she/he/they are willing), a self-help book can provide a stigma-free bridge to help your teen make that transition (and learn a lot of helpful information about anxiety in the process).

Many of us have been told we should journal more often, but we never seem to have the time. What if there is a book that makes it effortless for your child? With 50+ writing prompts with catchy titles (I’ve Got 99 Problems and Anxiety is One of Them on p.22 is one of my faves), teens are encouraged to air out concerns that they commonly worry about (such as social comparison, dating, academics, extracurriculars, the future, fitting in, and more).

Why is writing (or talking) about what is on your mind so therapeutic and helpful? Scientists have found that the act of putting your feelings into words can lower the level of arousal in the part of the brain that manages emotions and governs our responses to things that are upsetting. Dumping one’s worries can provide an instant sense of calm and make the worries less “hot.”

Further, writing can provide a wonderful outlet to express unspoken thoughts without being judged. Your teen may think, “I can’t write,” but the truth is that he/she/they likely have plenty of experience with writing—texting, emailing, blogging, live chatting, and tweeting are all writing exercises! The difference is that instead of public expression, journaling offers any person a private and empowering forum to express their own personal truths. And, teens in particular, tend to be easily embarrassed and really value privacy!

What if, after engaging in some light journaling/worry time, your teen could pick up some additional strategies for worry management? The remainder of the book does just that.

For example, teens are encouraged to think of their worried mind as if it is an internet browser, with many many tabs open. The book encourages readers to identify their TOP worries (and asks them to identify out of all the worries they have on their minds, which are trending the MOST?)

Next, they are encouraged to challenge their worries by asking very specific questions (much like a tough lawyer would). For example, a reader is encouraged to question whether they have any hard evidence or proof to support their worry (and if the “evidence” is from the internet, this is not good enough!)

Teens are also taught the shortcut strategy of replacing worry with specific, soothing and brief statements, which we call coping statements. Much like a mantra, affirmation or quick pep talk, these coping statements can stop worry in its tracks, without being overly saccharine or positive.

Some examples:

  • This is rough, but I can handle it.

  • It’s going to be okay, I’ve got this.

  • My anxiety is a product of my body chemistry and life experiences - it is not my fault.

  • Just because something is uncertain does not mean something bad is going to happen.

Ultimately, teens learn that anxiety is taking up space, rent-free inside their heads, and it is time to “unfollow” their worries! They learn that there are coping strategies that they can use and that they CAN have a sense of calm and control by using these skills.

The goal is never to eliminate anxiety completely (our bodies won’t let us) - but to learn that anxiety can be managed, and it does not have to take over your life.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you are 15 years-old and you are concerned no one likes you, or your friend will be mad at you, so you should skip the school dance. Goodbye, Anxiety encourages you to recognize that you are “mind reading” (a common thinking trap) and that this concern is unlikely (do not confuse feelings with facts!) It further encourages you to avoid avoiding (after all, anxiety and avoidance are best friends) and to face your fears by tolerating the initial anxiety spike (which will soon dissipate). Teens are encouraged to get out of Anticipation Land, and show up to the dance! (And, if it goes poorly, use skills for when Life Gives You Lemons).

Feeling stressed about your adolescent’s anxiety? Imagine that this thought is a person in a Zoom meeting and you, the parent, are the moderator. Click “mute” on this worry and witness the noise of it fade away. Grab a copy of my book today - and leave the meeting altogether!

This essay appeared as a guest post on the following site. Follow her for more tips on parenting!

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