Anxiety can be a crippling burden sometimes, and it shows up in many forms – from headaches, sweating, trembling, excessive worrying, rapid breathing and increased heart rate, to feeling weak or tired, having difficulty concentrating or just feeling nervous, restless, tense or irritable.
Most of us worry from time to time, but when we carry the worry around everywhere we go like a heavy backpack, it can weigh us down and make it difficult to live life in the way that we would like. And our children are not immune to anxiety. In fact, they can be even more susceptible to it. It is estimated that 25% of teens in the U.S. will fit the criteria for an anxiety disorder at some time, are the most anxious age range in our society and are more anxious than their peers in the rest of the world.
I believe there are many factors that go into this alarming statistic, but there are a few that I’d like to highlight here, along with suggestions to manage their anxiety.
1. Just Turn it OFF
We can’t stop teens from finding out about what’s going on in the world – even younger kids nowadays hear about current events much faster than they used to. But we can teach teens how to digest the information they are hearing as well as we can (though some events are difficult even for adults to digest). And for younger kids, we can try to filter the amount and depth of information that they hear, though with the rise of the internet and smart devices, that has never been more challenging.
We can also help our children to learn about events but not dwell on them; 24/7 access to news is not helpful to them or us. I remember the constant replaying of the images from 9/11 (pre-motherhood) and how I felt re-traumatized each time I saw the first plane hit the building. Once is enough (if at all) on these powerful visual images for children. But that also requires us not to leave the news on 24/7…
2. Get Their Zzzzz’s
The rise of smart phones, tablets and all other online devices has made bedtime a trickier process. Kids just want to play one more game, one more level, check one more update or watch just one more Youtube video. First and foremost, I encourage parents to apply a blue light filter to all devices (including their own). With my old PC, I used a software called f.lux that filtered out blue light at either sunset to sunrise, or at the time I set it. Now my Mac and iPhone have a setting called NightShift that filters the blue light the same way. The blue light from our devices can suppress melatonin production, which is an important hormone that our bodies secrete to help us fall asleep and stay asleep.
Most high schools begin earlier than teen bodies are ready to be “in action” though some are inching back the start time of their school over the past few years. Teens are tempted to use social media later and later to stay connected to friends and not “miss out.” You can set a reasonable time for disconnecting from devices and social media and there are even programs such as ParentKit where you can turn off access to wifi or to social media after a certain time each night. In addition, many cell phone providers allows us to turn off these devices at a certain time.
But rather than laying down strict policies and dropping the hammer on our children (especially older ones), I encourage parents to work together to collaborate and compromise on terms that both parent and child can live with. When we get their buy-in, it is much more likely that they will honor what we have agreed upon than if we keep them out of the process entirely. Thus, we are working as a team rather than it being about us vs. them.
3. FOMO and Social Media
Modern society has brought social media into our lives as well as our kids’ lives. Even if they don’t have social media accounts, they surely know about it and most of their friends likely have profiles on various platforms. Being on social media can be very tricky for young people who are just trying to figure out who they are, what they stand for, and what they like and don’t like, at the same time they are trying to form an identity that is separate from their parents. And adding in the inevitable comparison-machine of these various platforms can make navigating all of these emotions extremely difficult for our kids.
The inevitable truth about social media these days is that most kids communicate via these platforms. If our kids are on them, they are at risk of feeling left out or getting feelings hurt. And if they are not on them, they are at risk of not only feeling but actually being left out of all the group communication that goes on inside these platforms. Neither option is ideal.
What is a Parent to do?
How can we best help our children? If we allow them to have social media profiles, it is imperative that we teach our kids HOW TO USE social media instead of being USED BY social media. Social media is undoubtedly a powerful way to stay in touch with people both near and far – to communicate, collaborate and coordinate many facets of our lives. But we must help our children to see that before and beyond social media, they are a precious, unique person who is just as valuable as every single other person on this planet.It is imperative that we teach our kids HOW TO USE social media instead of being USED BY social media. Click To Tweet
We must help them to use social media as a tool of connection and not a weapon of comparison, measurement or judgment against their peers. Most people on social platforms only share their “highlight reels” which can leave us feeling like our lives don’t measure up to what we see on their profiles. But they are not sharing with us their sleepless nights, their chicken pox, or their painful breakups. It is important our children understand that, but we must make sure that WE understand it first.
4. Lighten up the School Focus
This can be a touchy subject for parents and for kids, but it must be stated. As parents, we often place too much emphasis on grades and performance in school. And most often it comes from a place of fear within us, which can then rub off onto them. We may fear them not getting into the advanced class, or getting the award or the scholarship or into the top college. This can lead to anxiety in our children in the Race to Nowhere, and ultimately burnout, discontentedness in their lives and anxiety.
As parents, we do best for our children when we focus on the process (how hard they worked, how much they learned, how engaged they are in the material) rather than the outcome (the final grade). There is no greater gift we can offer our children than to help them discover their gifts and passions and support them to go after their passion in life. This will serve them and humanity as they share their gifts with the world in their own unique and amazing ways.
5. The Gut-Brain Connection
My daughter is wired for anxiety. That much has been clear most of her life. It flared up when she was eight and we got a handle on it back then. One of the many steps we took to help her was to take her to a holistic medicine practitioner who is trained in both eastern and western medicine. He helped me to understand the connection between our guts and our brains and we removed certain foods to which she was sensitive. In addition, she began taking supplements to heal her gut, which allowed her body to be more effective at making the neurotransmitters in our bodies that keep anxiety at bay.
6. Take a Breather
We also taught her deep breathing exercises. When we focus on our breath, our bodies naturally calm down. One of the easiest exercises is called Box Breathing, where you close your eyes, inhale to a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and wait to a count of four before breathing in again. When I practice this, I close my eyes and imagine drawing the line of the box up the left side with the inhale, across the top while I hold my breath, down the right side while I exhale, and across the bottom while I wait to inhale again.
7. Just Throw it Out
My daughter sleeps with a fan in her room. When her worries would trouble her when she was younger, we went through a period of time when she would “pull” the worries out of her head and “throw” them into the fan, imagining them getting crushed into pieces when they went into the fan. This really helped her to release her fears and worries.
8. Keep a Lid on It
One other technique we used was to keep a “Worry Jar” near her bed. This was a plastic bug-catching jar with a screw-on lid. Each night, if she was feeling worried about something, I would unscrew the cap, she would tell me what was worrying her, and then she would “pull” the worry out and stuff it into the jar. After she was finished emptying her mind of all of her worries, I would screw the lid back on and then we would say a prayer asking God to empty the jar of her worries while she slept. When she woke up each morning, without fail, the jar would be empty. We can also teach children, especially older ones, to write their fears and anxieties down in order to release them from their troubled minds and store them in paper or journal so that they are released from their bodies. They can also tell the worries after they write them out that they have the day off.
A Final Thought on Anxiety
Modern society tempts us to live our lives as if we are running on a treadmill at high speeds. However, this is not beneficial to us. It is important that we take time to slow down, take a good look at our lives and the lives of our children and make sure we are making decisions and choices that support us to live our best lives, anxiety-free to the greatest extent possible.