The best way to teach your teen good coping skills is by literally backing off and giving them some room. Let your children think through solutions when they are dealing with a challenge or problem. I see coping skills as falling into the “street smarts” category. They aren’t something that one will learn at school. Coping skills are something that one needs to practice and exercise often in order to acquire and master. Parents can practice (and guide) good coping skills with teens to see how they handle certain situations. Some ideas your teen has will be effective and other will not. But that’s ok… this is how they learn. They need to problem solve, become more resourceful and at the very core…. learn self-reliance. Otherwise, they will look to you every time they deal with a challenge. What will they do when you aren’t around? How will they handle peer pressure, an emergency or a difficult conflict?
I was working with a teen client the other week, who became unraveled over a particular conflict she was dealing with that day. Now, her reaction to the situation seemed a bit over the top, but that’s ok…..she’s a teen and her feelings are valid. I was sympathetic and there to listen. However, I found myself falling into the trap of “problem solving” for this teen because she seemed so distraught. I thought I needed to “fix it” for her. As expected, she kept telling me why every solution I had wouldn’t work and so I kept coming up with more ideas, only to have each new one rejected by her again and again. Finally I stopped, looked at her and said: “You are very upset about this and I understand. I’m happy to help, but it’s up to you to figure out what that best solution should be. I’m here as a resource and a sounding board.” She actually stopped playing the “victim” and started to think through some solutions herself when I gave her the “green light” to take the lead.
Remember, teens need encouragement and space to think through the pros and cons associated with different outcomes. It’s not up to you (as a parent) to provide them with all the solutions. We need more quick thinkers; people who can resolve their own issues without chaos and drama. Parents who allow their children to take the lead on their own issues (within reason) tend to have less anxious children And the opposite is true as well. Kids that are over parented tend to have poor coping skills.
Like many others, I too believe that teens with anxiety benefit from mindfulness techniques; however, I find that before a teen can practice mindfulness techniques, they first need to identify the anxiety in a tangible way. I believe the best way to do this is through what I call an anxiety log. This is simply a journal or notebook that a teen can write in about their weekly experiences with anxiety.
- Step One- I encourage my clients to keep a notebook or journal and write down every time they feel anxious (date and time) for two weeks. This way we can first determine “how frequently” their anxiety occurs. It’s a great starting point for them to take control of the anxiety, name it and have a direct response to its occurrence. It also serves as a good marker to understand the “typical” amount of anxiety a particular teens feels/experiences in any given week.
- Step Two- I have my clients tell me in detail about the anxiety they wrote down in their log. This way the anxiety is no longer some secretive scary thing, it’s something we openly talk about together in a safe space. We continue this for a few weeks.
- Step Three- I have my clients continue with the log, but at this point (along w date/time) they write down what is happening WHEN the anxiety occurs. (Such as: where they were, who was there, time of day, etc.) This starts to take the power away from the anxiety. Instead of freezing in panic, heart pounding, palms sweating during the next anxiety attack, they start to direct their focus to the details around the attack for the log. I find that teens will go back after an anxiety attack and write volumes about the situation/experience. This (called journaling) in and of itself is a powerful tool for empowerment and healing.
- Step Four- Along with the above steps, I now have THEM rank the attacks on a scale of (1-10) so we can better understand, which were the worst and which were the easier attacks to get through. At this point, they are painting a very full and clear picture of their anxiety.
After a few months of meetings, we now have enough data to look at patterns in the anxiety as well as their triggers. I can ask questions such as: “What do you think the attacks have in common?” Or, “Why do you think the attacks are only at night? This way they are an active participant in putting the puzzle together around their own anxiety. So the next time they have an attack they will start to think…… “Why is this happening right now? What just triggered the anxiety? Have I seen this pattern before?”
Sometimes, just bringing awareness to the anxiety can cut down the frequency of the attacks. Once teens are comfortable thinking about their anxiety in this way, writing about it and talking about it openly, we can then approach mindfulness through coping skills and relaxation techniques.
I always tell teens that tackling anxiety takes preparation. Would you go into a math exam without studying? OR… Would you go into a tennis match without practice? The same goes for taking on anxiety. You have to be prepared. The log helps prepare them well before applying any mindfulness techniques.