(Inside: Help your big kid overcome anxiety. Help your tween or teen push past anxious thoughts and feelings. Here are tools to help with anxiety.)
Anxiety is a thing.
Your heart races, fear overtakes your brain, and the ability to think straight gets stifled.
Honestly (and my self-pride hates writing this), it’s something I struggled with my whole life. Being raised in the 80s and 90s, I don’t know that people really understood it then.
My mom and I were reflecting on how anxiety presented itself in my growing-up years, and how we didn’t know what to call it back then.
- My inability to sleep in 3rd grade. I had an intense fear of Bloody Mary showing up in any mirror or reflections (like in picture frames).
- My extreme rebellion in junior high. So many fears, including rejection from peers, swirled in my head, my brain felt overwhelmed, and I took everything out on my mom.
- My decision paralysis in my early twenties. I couldn’t make decisions. Couldn’t. Every choice paralyzed me, and I couldn’t move past it.
- And I could go on…
Now, as a mom of teens and tweens, I don’t know if I will ever fully shake my anxiety, but I have gained experience and perspective. Thankfully, I am in a good place with anxiety and how to handle it.
It’s taken years.
And I want to be honest, I’ve gotten professional help and highly recommend that to everyone. It’s good to have an anxiety expert speak directly into your life with tailored advice.
I’m grateful to be where I’m at and have been through enough struggle that I don’t take this good place for granted.
But still, this topic of anxiety captivates me.
Maybe because I am a high school teacher and I see it pounding in my teenage students. Also, I’ve seen it emerge like a beast in big kids from my community. I’ve watched my friends navigate teens who don’t want to go to school, have huge challenges in making friends, are over-the-top moody or withdrawn, have irrational fears, or have other sideways thinking and behaviors.
So, I’m still in this conversation about how to help teens with anxiety. And I’ve reflected a lot of my own experience and what I can talk from it to help our beautiful big kids now.
I’ve thought about the things that loved ones and experts have said to me over the years that have really helped.
Because our words matter. I do think constantly getting input into our brains of things that break the anxiety adds up.
So, as you work with yourself or your big kids to better understand their anxiety so they can “think above it” and better function, these are some powerful things to say.
In no particular order…
1. Focus on routine.
This has maybe been the top most helpful thing to me.
I’ve learned that my initial anxiety response is strong and intense. Sometimes, I just need to give my brain time.
So I focus on my routine, what’s right in front of me, going through the motions, not trying to be awesome, just keeping myself busy while I wait for my brain to calm down. I’ve learned to trust this process, knowing I will feel better as time passes and can then deal with whatever caused the anxiety in a more reasonable way.
2. You have the power to literally rewire your thinking.
First, take note of your personal patterns of anxiety: What do your anxious thoughts sound like? What is your body’s response? It’s when you recognize the thought pattern and body’s response pattern and then use tools to redirect your thinking, that the rewiring process begins.
Here are some tools that I’ve found helpful to rewire my thinking:
- Continually taking in encouraging, faith-filled books.
- Being in a faith community where people consistently remind me that God is for me and working in my life.
- Close friends who encourage me.
- Reading my bible. I was raised in a hope-filled church where we really believe that God is walking with us every single day. I take much comfort in that. For example, the other day I was stressing about my kid and started reading all the miracles in the book of Matthew. This thought popped into my head: God is a God of miracles. He can help in this situation. It sparked hope in my heart.
- Hope-filled affirmation cards taped to the mirror, laptop, and fridge.
- Journaling, meditating, and times of reflection help me gain perspective.
- Taking a walk in nature. Nature always helps.
But your kids’ needs might be different. As moms, it’s powerful to work together with our kids to come up with tools to break the negative thought pattern and redirect it in a healthier direction. (The below hope-filled printables are designed to help.)
3. Doing the HARD thing is a way to take away fear’s power of the hard thing.
The more you avoid something that scares you, the more power you give that scary thing. Doing what you fear actually tells your brain that it can be done and makes it a little less scary. Each time you do it, the less scary it should become.
4. Boss back your fears.
Channel your inner boss and tell your fears where they can go. Tell your worries to hit the road. Demand it to take a hike. Remind yourself that you can boss your fears and don’t have to let them boss you.
5. Instead of saying “What if,” say “What is?”
Your fears like to check off all the “what ifs”, the “what might go wrong” and the “what worst case scenario could happen.”
When you start with the “what if,” quickly change it to “what is.”
What do you know to be true? What can you control? What is reality? Again, this is retraining your thoughts. You are wanting your thinking to be grounded in what we know to be true, not what your brain is telling you might happen.
6. Recognize your triggers.
Let’s face it. Certain situations will cause you to feel anxious, and you know it before it happens. Maybe it’s when you’re tired or your routine is different. Maybe going to a certain class or working with a particular person. Maybe it’s trying something new.
Here, knowledge is power.
When you know that you’re going to start feeling anxious, then you can start your plan of attack to fight the fears before you even encounter the tough situation. Take that deep breath. Come armed with Bible verses or affirmation cards to fill your head with the truth. Have a phrase you can repeat to encourage you. Preplan how you are going to handle situations. Bring a friend to give you moral support. Think through what will help and prepare.
7. Sometimes you just have to “go there” with the worst-case scenario.
This sounds counter-intuitive, but for some teens, it works. Go ahead and travel down the road of what might go wrong. For my friend’s teen, it is usually a loved one dying (Definitely a worse-case situation! Also, we only do this exercise when I’m around to walk them through this thought pattern.)
Back to someone dying…
My friend will ask her teen, “And then what would happen?” The answer might be, “Then I’ll be too sad to ever leave my bed.” And she’d respond with a little humor, “Well, I definitely hope you have a good cry over me. But, I also hope you live life to the fullest for me.” Then they’d talk about how it might be hard, but they will still have God and family to love and support them. They’d talk about honoring a loved one’s memory by living life well.
Somehow, all this makes the worst case feel a little less scary.
But, remember, your encouraging conversations with your teens are just one piece of helping your teen move past anxiety. As we work with our struggling teens, we need to remember the big picture and what healing from anxiety looks like.
Anxiety is like a spiderweb of cracks that ripples out in all different directions in my life. (Or that’s my experience.) There is no one magic “fix” to stitch the cracks back together. Instead, many things are needed to heal small parts of the crack, until overall, I feel better.
For example, one small part of the crack is healed through taking care of my body. (Long walks in nature, eating healthy, sitting outside on the porch drinking tea, and plenty of sleep.)
Another part is healed by continually inputting encouragement. (Inspiration books, uplifting shows, church, friends.) A different section of the crack by hanging out with loved ones. (Family, friends, people who get me.) Another is by seeking professional help (Doctors, counselors, medication). Another is by educating myself on anxiety and learning how my body reacts to it and coming up with coping strategies, including trying to break my patterns of negative thinking. (Reading books and articles, reflecting on what my triggers are, knowing what my fight, flight, or freeze response is.) Or by purposely doing fun things. (Shopping, hiking, restaurants.)
And so on…
Collectively, these healthy lifestyle choices work together to slowly bind up my mess of cracks.
I wish there was an easy button to heal from anxiety.
However, as an adult, as someone who feels like they have been able to overcome, I know the little things add up.
So even though anxiety is a thing.
A real thing that is hard, hard, hard.
It’s also a thing we can learn to navigate and move past.
More resources for raising kids with anxiety
- The Raising Boys and Girls podcast has various shows on teens and anxiety that are super helpful.
- The book Raising Worry Free Girls by Sissy Goff is great. Her companion workbook Braver, Smarter, Stronger is also a good resource.
- Another helpful book is Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build On For Life by David Thomas.
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Cheryl is a mom of 3 boys, wife, speaker, high school teacher, and author of Empowered Moms & Kids. She has a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership and is passionate about learning and teaching. On www.empoweredmomsandkids.com you’ll find inspiration and encouragement for moms raising tweens and/or teens. Read more in the “about” section of this page.