Parenting a Teen with Anxiety or Depression: A Guide with Tips for Parents
Anxiety and depression have grown increasingly common among teens. Still, more than half of kids with one of these illnesses get no treatment. While these numbers don’t mean parents don’t care enough to seek treatment. They indicate that many parents don’t recognize their teen has a problem. Some simply assume they can fix the problem on their own.
When your children are small, they get bumps, bruises, and illnesses that you can usually solve with magical kisses, ice cream, and maybe a new toy. When your teenager starts to show signs of a mental illness like anxiety or depression, it can leave you at a loss or in unfamiliar territory.
Your first natural inclination is always to fix the situation, and many parents go to great lengths to try to mend the illness on their own to no avail. The first real step to making things better is to understand better what is happening on a deeper level.
Understanding Anxiety in Teens
Anxiety is a normal human response to some type of perceived stress, and childhood is full of anxious feelings. Kids can be afraid of many things as they go through the varying stages of growing up. These anxieties are temporary phases that the child overcomes with time, or even with comfort and reassurance from a parent.
For example, a child may have terrible anxiety about sleeping in the dark. Still, bedtime stories, a teddy bear, and an attentive parent can typically solve the problem. For teens with an anxiety disorder, the emotions aren’t solved so easily; the negative emotions don’t simply go away with time, comfort, or reassurance.
The five primary types of an anxiety disorder include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder
All forms of anxiety in teens can have their own unique attributes, so it is good to educate yourself about the different types of anxiety disorders your teen may be dealing with. Some general signs of anxiety in teens may include sleeping more than usual or sleep problems, school problems, irritability, physical ailments, social withdrawal, social phobias, loss of interest, changes in personality, and changes in appetite.
Some people with anxiety disorders, a medical condition, suffer from physical symptoms that interfere with daily activities.
What causes anxiety in teens?
Nearly one of three teens between the ages of 13 and 18 will experience some type of anxiety disorder. The numbers of teens with anxiety disorders have been steadily rising for several years.
The underlying reasons for the uptick are always up for debate. However, a few of the most commonly touted factors for an upswing in teenage anxiety include:
- Higher expectations to succeed and the pressure that comes along with those expectations
- Exposure to social media that can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem
- More exposure to alarming life situations due to things in the modern world, such as school violence, pandemics, political turmoil, and social issues.
Other individual factors can contribute to anxiety in teens as well, such as genetics, personality, brain chemistry, family situations, and more. Pointing out a single cause of an anxiety disorder is practically impossible; most teens have a series of underlying factors contributing to the illness.
Tips for Parents of a Teen with Anxiety
- Get to know how your teen conveys their anxiety.
Teens convey anxious emotions far differently than a small child. Early childhood reactions to anxious feelings can be extreme, but young children communicate their emotions the best way possible for them. For example, a younger child who’s afraid of the dark may scream and cry at bedtime. A teen with anxiety can experience all the same terrifying emotions and feelings, such as fear, nervousness, and sheer panic. The difference is the teen may not convey what they feel openly like a small child would.
Sometimes, even recognizing your teen has an anxiety disorder can be hard, but even identifying feelings after a diagnosis can be tough as well. Paying attention to your child’s feelings can help you recognize their different emotions and behaviors fueled by anxiety. You may not just know when the teen is having a bad day with their anxiety.
Initially, you may not know much at all. Over time and with careful and attentive observance, you will grow to learn what your teen’s "tells" are when their anxiety is settling in. In turn, this allows you to understand better when they need your love, support, and understanding the most.
Communication with your child about their feelings is one way to help them understand how to manage their emotions. Acknowledging what they feel and discussing it without judgment will help you build trust and rapport with your teenager.
Acknowledging your child’s fears without minimizing or judging their feelings will build trust. Go ahead, find the best way to help them to acknowledge their fears. After discussing how they feel, you can show your support by encouraging them to set small goals or take small steps to do the things that cause them anxiety. This approach helps a parent to be both encouraging and sympathetic without being pushy.
- Don’t punish your child for their anxiety.
Anxiety in teens can bring about a lot of undesirable situations. Maybe you’ve planned a family outing, but on the day of, your anxious teen refuses to come out of their room. While it can be frustrating, being forceful or punishing the teen for behaviors they can’t help is not a good idea.
One, you may be punishing someone for feelings they can’t escape. Two, parental punishment resulting from the teen’s anxiety can only lead to more anxiety when the situation arises again. Not only will the teenager have to deal with their typical anxiety, but they will also have more mental distress because they fear being punished because of their illness.
- Maintain a usual routine, be flexible, and avoid taking over.
Maintain a routine as much as possible, but leave a little flexibility in everything you plan or do. You may expect that your teen will participate in family activities, for example, but that expectation should come along with the understanding that these activities may not always go as planned. You may run into situations when your teen’s anxiety will inhibit plans and usual routines. Sometimes, you may need to encourage some sort of compromise or even adjust plans to combat the anxious feelings.
With certain types of anxiety, it can be tempting to step in and do everything for your teen because it may be easier to just handle things on your own. However, the more you step in and take over, the easier it is for the teen to avoid making progress. For example, maybe you have a teenager who experiences severe anxiety when talking to people they don’t know. If you regularly step in and speak for them, the teen will never have to find coping mechanisms to talk on their own.
- Don’t place blame on yourself.
Anxiety disorders can have numerous underlying causes. You could potentially go back in time to make changes and still end up with a teen with anxiety. Your teen’s anxiety is not your fault, so don’t try to take the blame. Likewise, don’t be hard on yourself if it took a while to figure out what was going on or even if you have bad days when your child’s condition frustrates you more than others.
You may get aggravated, you may be too harsh, and you may even lash out. These occurrences are bound to happen, but carrying guilt can only make it harder for you to connect with your child. Remember, children play off of their parent’s emotions. If the teen suspects you are hard on yourself because of their anxiety, it can exacerbate the situation for the teen personally.
- Don’t place blame on yourself.
- Learn to talk your teen through their anxious feelings.
One of the best things you can do to help support your teen who happens to have an anxiety disorder is to learn how to be their primary line of support. Support doesn’t mean you step in and carry the load; instead, you act as a support frame to lighten the load and make things easier.
Talking your child through their anxious feelings is hugely supportive and may involve:
– Explaining that their feelings are okay and acceptable
– Teaching your child to practice self-reassurance
– Modeling how to think through triggering situations
– Listening to even hard-to-hear emotions when the teen wants to talk
- Learn to talk your teen through their anxious feelings.
Being mindful of how you express your own fears is also important. It’s good to share personal experiences or issues with anxiety, but be careful to do so in a positive way. Maybe you both have social anxiety, for example. It can be fine to share your own struggles but also explain how you talk yourself through your struggles. Be careful not to downplay your teen’s feelings in the process; what they feel can be far different from your own personal experiences due to the nature of the illness.
Understanding Depression in Teens
Like anxiety, depression can be normal for humans to feel at certain trying times in life. Clinical depression, however, is a mood disorder that comes along with feelings of sadness and overwhelming gloom that don’t pass. True depression in teens can affect everything from how they feel and think to how they behave.
Depression is sometimes referred to as a major depressive disorder. Some of the most common subtypes of depression include:
- Persistent depressive disorder
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Psychotic depression
Depression in teens can sometimes be easier to point out than anxiety simply because there can be such a drastic difference in the adolescent’s personality and usual routine. Nevertheless, the two illnesses can have overlapping symptoms as well.
The depressed teen may lose interest in things they once enjoyed, have lower energy levels, have problems at school, and experience changes in things like appetite or sleep. You may also notice irritability, social withdrawal, and other similar anxiety symptoms. A depressed teen may also show no interest in making future plans or even have physical complaints of pain and discomfort with no reasonable explanation. In the worst cases, thoughts of suicide can be an issue for teens with depression.
What causes depression in teens?
It’s estimated that as much as 20 percent of teens will experience some form of depression before they grow into adults. A depressive disorder is often assumed to be based solely on some type of chemical imbalance in the brain. However, underlying causes can be far more complex than just one chemical being out of kilter with everything else. Depression in a teen can have many underlying causes, including:
- Genetic vulnerability due to inherited traits
- Medical problems, certain medications, and hormonal changes
- Stressful changes in life or stressful life events
- Early childhood trauma, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
In addition to underlying causes, some teens can be more at risk of depression than others due to low self-esteem, bullying, peer problems, or having a learning disability.
Tips for Parents of a Teen with Depression
- Accept that your teen is depressed.
You probably mean no harm when you say things about your teen, "feeling down." You likely won’t see the risk in explaining to people you know that you just have a "moody" teenager. However, these statements downplay what the teen is truly going through. It is far too easy to convince yourself and others that a teen is just being a typical teen because they are depressed.
You may have to constantly remind yourself and others that your teen is not making up their symptoms and what they are dealing with is a true illness. When you are accepting of depression in teens as a real illness, parenting the depressed teen in a more supportive way happens naturally.
- Keep an open line of communication.
The more a teen feels they can talk to a parent about their feelings, the more it can help them cope. Parents sometimes don’t mean to but often turn their child away when they need to talk. For instance, if your child is feeling especially depressed and they open up, simply saying something along the lines of the child should be happy because of everything they have can invalidate their feelings. Make sure your teenager knows they can come to you with anything, you will validate that their feelings are real and serious, and you are there to help them.
- Do what you can to create a less stressful environment.
Having a depressed teen can mean you need to readjust some attributes of the child’s environment to make it less stressful. Kids who are clinically depressed can have lower stress tolerance than others. You may have to adjust your schedule or routine, lower certain expectations regarding things like schoolwork or chores, and even seek therapy for yourself if you have your own issues that could be inducing stress. For example, if you and your significant other are constantly fighting, seeking relationship therapy and making a commitment to maintaining a peaceful environment can make a huge difference.
- Help your teen learn constructive coping skills.
Treatment Solutions for Teens with Anxiety or Depression
Having a child with a mental illness can be all-out confusing, sometimes frustrating, and totally heart wrenching. As a parent ready with your repertoire of usual solutions to help, seeing you can’t make it all better is tough. The need to "fix" your child can sometimes get in the way of taking the right approach to help a teen struggling with anxiety or depression. In reality, the fixing should be left to professionals while you work in tandem with the pros to provide your love, support, and understanding.
In some cases, a therapeutic treatment center can be the most obvious path of support for a teen in crisis. If you feel your teen needs formal treatment, reach out to us at Zion Educational Systems to speak to a family advocate.