How can you check if your teen is struggling with anxiety

Covering everything from anxiety, depression, trauma and eating difficulties, to understanding neurodivergence and gender identity Dr Jo Prendergast’s new book ‘When Life Sucks’ is an essential guide for parents and carers looking to understand what’s going on in their teen’s mind. This is an extract about anxiety and your teen.

Some of the things to think about if your teen is struggling with anxiety:

  • When they are anxious, what do they do and what do other people do around them?
  • Do they get into a worry and seeking reassurance cycle?
  • Do they feel fearful, with their body ‘alarm’ going off, so they get into an avoidance cycle?
  • Do you ‘catch’ their anxiety (maybe because you have some too!) and give them reassurance and attention and avoid making them do stuff that gives them anxiety?
  • Do they get to avoid or escape a situation that was never dangerous and as a result don’t get to learn that they were actually safe and that, even though they felt anxious, they were able to be brave and do it anyway?

Worry time – managing the reassurance cycle.

Mental health workers often suggest having a ‘worry time’ for a big daily worry dump, whether this is writing them all down or telling someone else. This can help break the reassurance cycle; it can reduce ruminating on worries and seeking reassurance through the day.

  • If they want to do worry time with you, pick a time of day (not bedtime as it can affect sleep) when you can dedicate 5 or 10 minutes (it does not need to be longer).
  • Talk with your teen in advance about the importance of shrinking the worry or anxiety down to size and not giving it too much attention.
  • Suggest they find a way to note down the worries they have during the day so that when it comes to worry time, they can prioritise what they want to talk/think/write about.
  • The experience of ‘delaying until worry time’ means that the distress attached to the initial worry has a chance to settle.
  • During worry time, let them go for it, getting them to see if there are any problems that need solving or if this is just the ‘worry brain’.
  • The biggest challenge with worry time is often being able to stop. A timer sometimes helps. Don’t expect your teen to love this structure, but if you are able to stand firm and stop when the time is up, the need for constant reassurance breaks down. For parents who fear this approach might stop their teen talking to them about important stuff, the reality is that setting boundaries helps them work out what are the actual problems they can do something about.
  • If your teen is coming to you out of worry time or is wanting to keep talking, say something like ‘I get it, this is tough and your worry brain is being really bossy, but we need to stand up to it. At the moment that’s easier for me to do, so you can get grumpy but I won’t back down. You are that important to me.’ This is an example of being a ‘warm rock’ parent who understands the reassurance cycle.

© When Life Sucks: Parenting Your Teen Through Tough Times, by Dr Jo Prendergast. Published by HarperCollins, New Zealand. RRP AU$34.99 NZ$39.99. Available from all good book sellers.

Dr Jo Prendergast is a psychiatrist, a parent and a comedian. She knows how hard it can be—especially when a teen communicates with an eye-roll and grunts! Her book is a first aid manual for every parent who ‘is reaching for Dr Google or a chardonnay in despair’.