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  • Lori K Walters

How can I support my teenager with anxiety?


Frosty branch in golden sunlight. Parenting Coach


I’m glad that we're speaking more openly about our kids’ mental health and that we have diagnoses like ADHD, anxiety, depression, social phobia, etc. Naming what’s going on for them can be a huge relief, providing a map for going forward and real hope for their wellness. 


And it can be so scary. Suddenly, you’re way out of your depth, catapulted into the medical arena and trying to figure out how to support and live with your kid. What’s the right thing to do? How will I know if I should intervene? How can I ask if they’re ok? What can I say that won’t drive them away? 


Believe me, I get it. When the doctor said “anorexia”, I was shocked. I knew my teenager was eating less but I hadn't fully grasped what was going on for them mentally. One word and my nervous system went on high alert: fight, flight, freeze and fawn all at once, like a dashboard of flashing lights. It took every fiber of my being to find my calm and navigate the coming days (and years). 


What were my choices? Run away or figure out how to be the mother of a kid with an eating disorder. I learned a lot about the disease, but the truly hard part was the internal bombardment of panic, guilt, wishful thinking, numbing, catastrophizing, myriad preconceptions about disordered eating and some hard truths about my own relationship with food. It had me searching to my depths for the faith that I would be able to do this.  


~


I’m not a doctor, psychologist or therapist; I bow to them for the help they can give you on supporting your child through anxiety. 


At the same time, as a parenting coach, people regularly come to me with questions beyond the scope of medical advice. Their questions boil down to this: How can I grow into the role of parenting an adolescent who experiences anxiety? 


This is my answer: address your feelings, assumptions and wounds related to their anxiety. Get clear about how you’re being with the anxiety. Make shifts within yourself so that you are more capable of being a solid support, a soft place to land, a wise co-strategist, an effective guide or whatever role your kid needs you to fill. 



Feelings

 

How do you feel about your child’s anxiety? Is it making you fearful? Are you avoiding it? Do you feel embarrassed? Frustrated? Upset?


It does no good to keep telling yourself, ‘I’m upset’. But when you get more granular and say, “I’m feeling desperation, detachment, confusion or inadequacy,” then you’ve got something to work with. This is my favourite tool for  naming uncomfortable emotions (formerly called ‘negative’).


I invite you to choose one of your feelings about your kid's anxiety and observe for a week or two how it shows up in you. 


Notice the nuances and strive to name it more specifically.

What kinds of situations bring it on? Is there a pattern?

Where do you experience that feeling in your body?


When you can recognize and greet uncomfortable emotions, you are more able to take a breath and allow them to flow through you, instead of bracing against them or squashing them down. It’s through feeling them that we can tap into the wisdom of our emotions.


So I invite you to consider: What’s your next step in developing your ability to ‘be’ with this emotion?


 


Assumptions


Once you are feeling what needs to be felt and returning to a calmer state, you can effectively engage your brain and take an objective look at your assumptions.


What’s looping in your inner dialogue about anxiety and about YOUR kid having anxiety?  

 

  • I’m a terrible parent.

  • I should have seen this coming and prevented it.

  • It’s my fault because I’m so anxious.

  • They’re just imagining it. It’s what all the teens are doing these days.

  • People are judging me and will probably distance themselves.

  • I can’t handle this. If I say or do anything, I’m going to make it worse.

  • They’re just trying to be contrary and piss me off.

  • I don’t know what I’m doing so I should leave it to the counselor.

  • I should know how to handle this.

  • They’re going to spend their lives in therapy, be unable to take care of themselves, unable to hold down a job and be relegated to the fringes of society.

 

If you’re hearing these voices, then a part of you is trying to avoid a perceived danger. That part of you only has one strategy: to keep you safe by repeating old stories. Unfortunately, ‘keeping you safe’ is also keeping you spinning your wheels. It’s up to you to recognize them for what they are – stories, assumptions or conclusions that a former version of you jumped to.


The question is: Is the story true now?


No, it’s not. You have gained so much experience and ability since that story started.


What’s true for you now?


What needs to be rewritten now? Maybe something like, “I am learning how to handle this. I can reduce my own anxiety. There was no way I could have prevented this. I’m a good parent.”


Open the door to another, self-compassionate perspective.


 

 

Wounds


It’s a fact that, when tricky things are going on with our teenage and young adult children, our own wounds from the past get scraped, poked and even split open again. We set our intention to be a calm, well-resourced adult and then these thoughts come creeping in:

 

  • Wait, I had mental health issues, and I didn’t get any support for it.

  • My sister was anxious and she was always the center of attention. We couldn’t do anything unless it worked for her. I was always the second consideration with my parents.

  • It was so nerve-wracking having to tiptoe around my dad and trying not to set him off. I don’t deserve to live like this again.

  • I’ve done so much work to find my calm and now this kid is throwing me back into that constantly frayed feeling.

 

Go gently with yourself when you feel what’s coming up for you and recognize that these are your issues and your wounds, no one else’s. Separate your past experiences from your child’s current ones



Clearing past wounds is like untangling a ball of wool.

Follow one thread, pull gently, breathe.

Lean in toward what surfaces. How does this wound relate to the assumptions you identified above?

Pull gently, breathe.

What effect does it have on your emotional landscape?

Pull gently, breathe.

Trust that what’s there is arising now to be healed. 


What’s a practice that can help you release this story? Is it a mantra, a different way of holding your jaw, or starting a mindfulness practice? What’s a simple activity you can bring into your daily life that begins to write a new story about your way of being with anxiety? If you need guidance to take your next step, send me a message and let's figure it out.    



Choosing to grow into a new kind of parenting is an act of love. It is stepping up to meet the tasks we’re given and trusting the universe that we are, in fact, the one intended to raise this particular kid through this particular maze. It is self-love as well: believing in your ability to change and taking the opportunity to expand and evolve.



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