How to deal with anxiety in young people
Anxiety can hold back teenagers and children when it gets a grip. But there are some things parents, youth workers and school chaplains can do to help kids cope.
Everyone gets stressed and worries about things. But anxiety is a deeper sense of worry. It doesn’t go away when the circumstances change and looks for other reasons to worry. It’s more than just being anxious.
In late 2015 the Australian Government released a ground breaking mental health survey. They’d interviewed over 6000 families.
The survey found anxiety to be the most common mental health issue faced by young Australians. It affects around one in fourteen tweens and teens.
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of it’s joy.”
That means in most classrooms you can expect two students to have a diagnosable level of anxiety.
It’s also likely to have a significant impact on the ability of children to join in and enjoy life. The survey found that high school students with anxiety missed around 22 days each year. Those in primary school miss roughly 6 days.
A good friend of mine, Peter Janetzki told me years ago that people who experience depression as an adult often had anxiety as a child. Identifying the signs of anxiety and boosting coping skills, could be just what children need to avoid depression later in life.
How to tell if a young person has anxiety
Like many mental health issues, anxiety can run in families. But that doesn’t mean that an anxious parent will have anxious children or the other way around. Anxiety often develops because of personality traits or stressful a life event. Sometimes its a combination of both.
Personality traits to look out for in children and young teens are perfectionism and a fear of change.
These young people can get flustered if their routines get upset and like to control everything. In tweens and teens, low self esteem becomes an important signpost for anxiety also.
Life events that can lead to anxiety include serious medical issues, the death of a loved one or child abuse. Kids who experience trauma, a major move or issues at school or home, are also at risk.
The mental health survey found that anxiety was more common in families with low incomes or unemployment. Families with lower education levels or relationship problems also tend to see more anxiety in their kids. And anxiety is a much more common reality for children living in rural communities.
She was in Year 5 when her mum first started noticing that Cassie was getting upset all the time.
Cassie’s teacher had to take leave for an operation and over the next term the class a revolving door of relief teachers. Cassie had always struggled to cope with change. She got frustrated when she felt her work wasn’t right, to the point of daily tears and refusing to go to school.
It was also starting to affect her friendships. A family friend was the first to notice that Cassie’s worrying was no longer a passing worry but could be anxiety. She suggested Cassie’s mum take her to see their family doctor.
You can find out more about the signs and symptoms of anxiety on the BeyondBlue website. It’s an excellent starting place for learning more about mental health issues.
“Anxiety isn’t something that goes away. It’s something you learn to control.” – Anonymous
Five things you can do to deal with anxiety in a child
So if you see signs of anxiety in a young person you live or work with, what can you do?
One of the first ways that most professionals will deal with anxiety is to build resilience. To equip the child with some better coping skills.
Resilience is a popular buzz word at the moment, but it’s best understood as the ability to bounce back from a difficulty or disappointment. I haven another article on resilience, that gives some great tips about how to make it stronger. Coping skills are the things we do that help us face stress or a challenge, which I’ve also written an article on.
But if you have a young person showing signs of anxiety, here’s five things worth giving a try:
1. Help them find information
In the survey, 15 percent of young people found help online. Youth BeyondBlue and Headspace both have great resources. They also offer phone and online chat support that young people can access at any time.
2. Distract them with some exercise or an activity they usually enjoy
Exercise releases endorphins which are hormones that reduce stress and stabilise moods. This is a great coping skill that young people can learn to use when they start feeling anxious.
3. Put their worries into perspective
Use a gentle voice and talk about how this worry fits into life overall. Point out how they’ve coped with similar things in the past. Sometimes teenager just needs to hear that they’ve coped with something like this before. Just be careful not to minimise the worry or tell them to “get over it”.
4. Get them to bed
Often young people experiencing anxiety can get worked up. To be able to move on, you sometimes need a circuit breaker, and sleep can be perfect for this. Put them somewhere quiet. If possible give them some physical contact by rubbing their back or even holding their hand. Then gently say the same thing over and over, “Just take a rest and then we’ll work it all out…”. Those endorphins that they’ve released will make them want to sleep. You’ve just got to calm them down enough to let their hormones work their magic. It’s surprising how much better they feel after a bit of a rest!
5. Treat them as the expert
Ask them what they think they can do to fix their worry. Sometimes kids will be too agitated for this to work. Other times they’ll come up with a perfect solution. It might be that they decide to the person they feel is causing their stress. Or they might want to make some big changes to avoid that stress altogether. Where this happens, help them think through how reasonable and realistic their ideas are. Get them to come up with a couple of solutions. The beauty of this strategy is that long term it helps them to manage their own anxiety.
Anxiety doesn’t need to be something that limits them for life, as long as kids develop some skills in being the boss of it. That’s where adults can play a part in reshaping their thoughts and helping them to adopt better coping skills.
What other coping skills have you seen work for a teen or tween? I’d love you to share your ideas in the comments.