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Expert advice on how to help anxious teenagers

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Child psychologist Emma Woodward's tips for those wanting to help anxious teenagers. 

Brain education

Explain to your child that everyone has a thinking brain – the prefrontal cortex – and an emotional brain – the amygdala – that tries to take over when we’re under stress.

Emphasise to your child that they are in charge: they don’t have to panic, run away or lash out just because their emotional brain wants them to.

It’s really empowering. Suddenly, you see kids realise for the first time that they’re in control of their thoughts and emotions … For kids who have been anxious for a long time, that’s quite a big shift.

When you see your child spiralling, tell them it seems like their emotional brain is taking over, and they need to stop and take a few deep breaths to get their thinking brain back online.

Reality check

Ask your child, on a scale of one to 10, how big this problem is, compared with others. How much do they feel they have control over it, or that they are to blame? How long is it going to last?

When you’ve named it, you’ve changed it and you don’t feel so anxious about it any more.

Build on strengths

Explicitly focus on what your child does well, and help them build on those strengths. Talk about their qualities of character – there’s a scientifically robust list and a free survey here – and prompt them to use those.

When my young son was upset that his toy car had broken, I asked him whether he thought he could use his strength of perseverance to put it back together again.

It reminded him that he’s got perseverance and he can keep going forward, rather than being overwhelmed by the fact that it went wrong.

You find that anxious kids have really good strengths in humility, love, honesty, kindness and social intelligence, but they need to learn how to dial up their strengths in leadership and bravery, perspective and judgment and curiosity.

Make cards naming the strengths your child needs to work on, and get them to pick one at random each day.

Say, “Today’s a bravery day. I want to see if you can point out five times today where you use your strength of bravery.”

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.