Did you know that nearly one in three kids between the ages of 13 to 18 now meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder? In addition, 32% of teens report persistent feelings of sadness or loneliness. Many factors contribute to this escalation. With COVID-19 taking over our lives, their anxiety levels can be even higher!
During “normal” times, they were already dealing with screen addiction and the constant comparison to unrealistically “perfect” lives of peers on social media. Teens combat online bullying, lack of sleep, the pressure to achieve, media influencers, political turmoil, and the possibility of a school shooting when school is in session.
Many of these environmental factors are out of our control. As anxiety mounts in society, it mounts in individuals and families. It is cumulative, and passed down from parents to children, generation to generation. The attitude or action of one person in a family or group affects everyone else.
If you are in a relationship, you know how that works! In couples therapy, we ask individuals to imagine what their own contribution to the conflict might be. It’s essential to think about how the other person receives one’s behavior. So, what might be the main reason we see more anxiety in children? They are absorbing our distress!
Often, problems within the couple relationship impact the children. Without the cognitive skills to communicate how they feel, kids can act out their anxiety in disturbing ways. If family anxiety gets high enough, the impact can be severe. The focus then becomes on the child. Ideally, we would address the anxiety we carry as adults before it impacts the child.
It’s important to understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear happens when the source of the dread is a threat that can be identified as something present or imminent. As Jeffrey Brantley, MD describes in Calming the Anxious Mind.
“When the feelings of dread are not so clearly associated with an identified danger or threat, they are called anxiety. It is felt deeply in the mind and body in the present moment. It seems to be in response to something threatening, but hazy, something vague or far away. You cannot identify the danger, but you feel the fear anyway.”
Mild anxiety is normal. It can even enhance performance. It can also warn of a danger, or point toward useful action. The higher levels of anxiety, however, can interfere with daily life. Following stressful environmental factors (such as those mentioned above) and biology, the most important influence on our ability to handle stressors without a moderate or high anxiety response is the family environment. It affects our self-perception, view of the world as threatening or supportive, level of self-confidence, and sense of control.
The good news is that there are successful ways to address anxiety before it is passed down to the kids. It takes practice and insight, and should usually be done with the help of a therapist. Here are some areas to get you started:
Recognize the pattern.
Make a chart to keep track of what triggers your anxiety.
What's the situation?
Who was there?
What were you doing?
What was going through your mind?
What images did you have with these thoughts?
How were you feeling before this thought?
How did you start feeling after the thoughts?
Correct cognitive distortions.
Once you recognize the pattern and what triggers fear, you can consider any cognitive distortions in your thinking.
Most of us have a negative bias, where we give a lot more weight to the negative possibilities. Psychologist Aaron Beck, who developed Cognitive Therapy (CT) in the 1960s, called this irrational thinking pattern, “automatic thoughts” because they are immediate and reactive in nature. The process requires examining the rationality and validity of the assumptions behind your thought patterns.
Once we have found the core fear, we must decipher our “chief defense,” which keeps us from functioning fully and freely.
Establish a mindfulness practice of letting go and bringing relaxation and non-judgmental attention to the present.
Accept mild levels of anxiety as part of life.
Uncertainty and discomfort are part of living.
They are signs that we are moving forward, taking the necessary risks to grow.
Sometimes we perceive normal signals as unacceptable.
If you have an anxious child, the chances are that one of the parents is anxious. Taking these steps can break the cycle. Your children tend to assimilate your style. You can message to them when you’re nervous about something and model how you handle your distress. This way, they (and you) expect worry to show up and have the tools to use it constructively.
If you or your children are struggling with anxiety today, check out our Imago Relationship Therapy. We have online therapy available today too!
This blog was written by Tory Joseph, M.Ed., LCPC, a licensed clinical counselor, relationship therapist and parenting specialist.
Tory works with couples, parents, and individuals to address problems with anxiety, grief, depression and loss of connection, to then gain insight, healing and growth. Her clients work through infidelity, divorce and blending families. She has over 20 years of experience in teaching, counseling, and parent coaching.
Tory is the mother of three grown children, raised in the DC area. She works to help people navigate through difficult transitions, including career change, empty nest, divorce, relationship breaks, or death of a loved one. Tory also focuses on helping those better understand and resolve challenges in their life, manage difficult emotions (including anger and anxiety), improve decision-making, create a healthy blend of work, leisure and relationships and overcome ambivalence, fear, destructive behavior and move toward goals.
Check out Tory's website too!