It’s easy for adults to forget what it was like to be a teen. The teen years are filled with worries, growing pressures and many changes. Along with excitement can be uncertainty, as well as stress and anxiety.
EASE at Home 8–12 contains six downloadable resources to help parents and caregivers support their teens to manage everyday stress and anxiety.
Hidden accordion for closing.
As parents and caregivers, we don’t want to “cure” our teens’ anxiety. After all, some anxiety can be helpful to motivate teens to take healthy risks and meet goals (and get to school on time!). In the right amount and at the right time, some anxiety is a normal and healthy response.
Some larger and more chronic anxiety problems or disorders can have a real impact on teens both academically and socially. Fortunately, these can be treated so that teens can thrive. To find out more, see When Anxiety Is a Problem.
Stress and anxiety: What is the difference?
Stress is usually caused by something you can name, like a big school project. Removing the source of the stress, by finishing the project or being given extra time, brings relief. Stress arises when the demands on us are bigger than what we can cope with. Sometimes stress is useful, helping us be alert and prepared for a challenge or important event. Learning how to cope with stress helps us build resilience. Anxiety is best described as unhelpful thinking about a real or imagined threat. It is the feeling that something bad could happen, and if it did happen, we wouldn’t be able to handle it. Both stress and anxiety can be accompanied by uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches or tight muscles.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Parent: So what happened at school today?
Parent: How did your presentation go?
Parent: Maybe it’s a good idea to start early on the science project so you aren’t up so late on Sunday?
Teen: OK, YEAH, I KNOW
When a teen is having a hard time coping with stress and anxiety, it can be frustrating when they don’t seem to want to do anything to help themselves and they reject our advice or suggestions. Anxiety can take many forms, some of which can be difficult for parents and caregivers. But there are small steps that we can take to soften a teen’s defenses and connect with them. First, think about why your teen may not want to tell you what’s on their mind. Here are some possible reasons:
- They are tired. After a long day at school, your teen wants to turn off their brain for a while and relax when they get home. They get cranky if they feel like they are being asked too many questions. Also, many teens rarely get enough sleep during the school year. You can find out more about teens and sleep at Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.
- They are worried that we will be angry. If your teen’s test anxiety got in the way again, for example, they may be frustrated and embarrassed, and not want to be reminded of what they could have done better. Maybe they don’t want to worry or upset you, or they just want to avoid thinking and talking about it.
- Talking doesn’t feel like it will solve the problem. Often things will get better after a few days, and they just want some time to think about it on their own.
Two resources from FamilySmart can help parents and caregivers better understand their teens:
Here are some tips for talking to your teen – and getting your teen to talk to you:
Choose the right time.
Figure out what times of day or night your teen is most willing to talk. Some teens are most grouchy in the morning but may be more talkative after school or right before bed.
Start off neutral.
If your teen seems upset but quiet, try having a conversation about a more neutral topic, something that is important to them (like the family pet, or plans for the weekend), rather than asking what’s wrong or how they are feeling.
Validate – don’t solve.
It’s tempting to offer advice, especially when a problem is familiar. But teens often don’t want someone to fix their problem (at least not right away); they want to feel heard and understood and have a chance to calm down. Try saying things like, “Ugh, that sounds awful,” “I can see why that is upsetting” or “What a rough day you’ve had.” They might then start to think about how to solve the problem on their own.
Tell a story about yourself as a teen.
Stories are how we learn. They allow us to learn from someone else’s mistakes and do things better when we find ourselves in a similar situation. Sharing your own struggles as a teen shows that you are human and you’ve made mistakes – and you survived. Your teen will understand you better as well.
Regularly listening to your teen without judgment will make them feel more comfortable reaching out when they’re ready to talk. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask open-ended questions (rather than questions that can be answered with yes or no), like “It seems like something is weighing on you. How can I help?” Allowing teens to complain is not the same as agreeing with their behaviour or completely accepting their version of things. Instead, you are validating their feelings so they can move beyond them and start the next day less burdened.
Focus on their strengths rather than their anxiety.
Sometimes it can feel like you are both going round and round in circles, continuing to sort out the same old things. See if you can change the conversation to focus on your teen’s strengths as well, and your confidence in their ability to handle the situation. This might sound something like:
- “I know this is hard, but I also know you can handle it.”
- “This reminds me of other times when you’ve been brave. I know you will find your courage with this as well.”
- “I believe you can do this.”
Go for a drive.
A car can be a good place to encourage your teen to open up. It is a private place where you can sit together without eye contact, which can make teens uncomfortable. Walking in nature or another private place can work too. It sends the message that they are important and that you want to spend time with them.
Read to your teen (really!).
There is no reason why reading to your child has to end in elementary school. They may not want the same bedtime stories, but reading a long novel together bit by bit, or sharing an interesting magazine article or funny self-help quiz can be a nice way for your teen to relax, leading to more talking, questions or stories from their day.
Find other ways to communicate.
If it is easier for your teen to communicate in writing, take turns writing about difficult topics in a shared parent-teen journal. If it feels like nothing is working, join them in an activity that they find fun – even if you don’t “get it” – like a TikTok dance. Or connect with your teen by sending them an encouraging quote or funny picture in a text message.
Model healthy coping skills yourself.
Once in a while, in front of your teen, take some slow deep breaths and roll your shoulders when you are feeling stressed. Out loud, talk yourself out of imagining the worst possible outcome. Or go for a mindful walk to calm down. Your teen is watching (even if they pretend they aren’t). We won’t always know how to make our teens’ anxiety better. Even if we don’t understand the source of their distress, we can still reassure our teens by showing that we are not alarmed and that we believe in their ability to handle it.
Dealing with an anxious teen isn’t always easy. Take care of yourself. Talking to other parents can be helpful, especially if their own teens have been anxious.
For parents and care providers
- 3 Mindfulness Techniques to Help Reduce Parenting Stress, Understood
- 12 Practices for Connecting to Self and Others in Times of Stress, Heart-Mind Online
- Emotion Coaching Framework Cheat Sheet, Mental Health Foundations
- How Would You Like Adults to Talk to You, FamilySmart
- Parenting When Going to School Is Hard, FamilySmart
- Parents of Teens…Remember to Listen and Breathe, Heart-Mind Online
- Sharing Good News Strengthens Relationships, Heart-Mind Online
- Some Ideas for Helping Conversations Go Better, FamilySmart
- Tackling Anxiety: Practical Strategies for Children and Youth, Kelty Mental Health
- What to Expect from Me, FamilySmart
- 10 Healthy Habits to Support Your Mood, EASE 8–12 (PDF)
- Anxiety, Foundry
- Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress, Regine Galanti (paperback book; ask at your local library or bookstore)
- Anxiety Resources: Apps, Websites and Videos, EASE 8–12 (student resource)
- Anxiety Sucks: A Teen’s Survival Guide, Natasha Daniels (paperback book; ask at your local library or book store)
- Anxiety – Videos for Teens, Hey Sigmund
- Goal-Setting Worksheet, Foundry
- Learning about Anxiety in Youth, Anxiety Canada
- Mindshift CBT free app, Anxiety Canada
- SELF Toolkit: Adolescent Version, Kelty Mental Health
- Smart But Scattered Teens: The Executive Skills Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential, Richard Guare et al. (paperback book: ask at your local library or book store)
- When Anxiety Is a Problem, Anxiety Canada