Letting Your Teen Do That Hard Thing: 5 Ways to One Up Teen Anxiety

Parents often come to me asking for guidance with teen anxiety when their teen is facing an uncomfortable or challenging situation. Their teen suddenly wants to change class or stop doing an activity because they aren’t getting along with their peers, don’t enjoy the teacher, are falling behind or had something embarrassing happen etc.

In these situations, you then find yourself faced with a decision: ’do I help my teen fix this, or do I let them ride it out and face the challenge?’

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A while back, one of my kids was hanging out with a friend. They hit a car with their scooter. They freaked out and came back home. It was so obvious to me that something had happened.  Once we got the details, it was decided that they would go over to the house and let that person know what had happened. My kid felt so embarrassed and the thought of knocking on the door to admit the mistake and not knowing the outcome was super stressful. 

Part of me wanted to go with them, wanted to have the conversation for them, but I didn’t. It was hard not to step into rescue fix-it mode, my own anxiety flared up of what if the neighbour was rude to them, or judged my parenting decision. 

The desire to jump in and fix things for your teen may seem to be almost a reflex. Fixing the uncomfortable thing might feel like it’s setting your teen up for success, easing their anxiety and making things better. The thing is, oftentimes it isn’t what benefits them in the end. 

Allowing your teen to face challenging situations builds up their confidence and ability to figure things out- Read on to discover 5 Ways to One Up Teen Anxiety through the hard experiences.

In the end, the conversation with my neighbour went alright, and after a sigh of relief, my teen went on and had a great night with his friend….later on they even went back to the neighbors and brought over some cinnamon buns.  

Decreasing Teen Anxiety: Why Parents Want to Fix Hard Things

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As a parent, wanting to help your teen out in tough situations is natural. Learning when your help is supporting your teen’s growth and development vs. when it might be stunting that growth can be helpful to understand.

Of course there will be times when it is really helpful to step in as a parent and support your teen through a difficult situation (which we’ll talk about later). However, a lot of development opportunities come from naturally riding out something that is difficult and going through it. You may even get a lot of resistance from your teen when you try to step in and ‘fix’ difficult situations.

But why is it so tempting to jump in and resolve the problem for your teen!? Why is there often such a strong instinct to  fix problems – ex: talk to the teacher when they’re behind, let them drop that sports class, etc.?

I sometimes hear from parents “I don’t want my teen to struggle. I don’t want them to have a rough time.” I get it. It’s hard to see another person suffer. In particular if it’s someone you love very dearly. Your role when your teen was younger was based largely on protecting them and helping when needed. It can sometimes be hard to loosen that role and allow your teen to make mistakes, mess up, and face something difficult.

“I just want my teen to be happy” is another reason parents share for why they want to ‘rescue’ their teen from emotional or difficult experiences.  And of course you want your teen to feel joy and to have positive experiences in their life! In fact, it is really important for them. Something to keep in mind, though, is the importance of feeling all the emotions (including happiness). There is a broad range of them – excitement, boredom, anger, sadness, love, etc. I think if we experience the range, there can be a deeper appreciation for certain feelings and a knowing that they can get through the tougher ones.

Avoiding a fight or protesting from your teen can be another reason to enter into rescue mode; you want to avoid the stress of the ‘teen tantrum’. It seems easier to simply solve the problem; it isn’t worth it to push your teen through difficult situations. As a parent, you simply don’t want to face the argument.

I know there are lots of times with my own teen where I think to myself ‘do I stand my ground here? Or do I just let it slide?’ It can sometimes be tempting to make the problem go away ASAP!

Being judged on parenting decisions is something parents often don’t talk about, but societal pressures around parenting exist. The layers of- What would other parents think of me if my teen fails this class or loses their job? I don’t do it that way, am I doing it wrong? What does that say about me if I force my kid to stay with a teacher they can’t stand? How will this reflect on my parenting? It’s very challenging as a parent to face these judgments. Sometimes these are conscious thoughts and other times it is more in the subtext of how we parent. 

How Often Are You Rescuing From Teen Anxiety?

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If you often find yourself rescuing your teen – doing things like letting them drop their sports, cleaning up after them continuously, talking to their teachers when they struggle, bringing them a project they forgot, etc. – consider the message that sends. 

Sometimes, the message your teen takes in when they are being rescued (although unintentionally) is that they aren’t capable. They truly believe they can’t handle things; that they need someone else to do it for them.

By allowing teens to do their own thing instead, you’re giving them a different message – “you can handle difficult experiences, you’re resourceful, you can face hard situations.” And these are messages that you most likely want your teen to be carrying.

What kind of lessons are you teaching your teen around their capacity to handle hard things? Their ability to face challenges?

One Up Your Teen’s Anxiety – Make the Most of Difficult Situations

You can use conflict and undesirable situations as a way to help your teen build their capacity to handle them, build resilience, and manage their anxiety.

Here are 5 things you can do to support your teen’s growth through hard things:

  1. Allow your teen to make as many choices and decisions as possible – inside and outside the home.

Some areas for decision making:

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  • Making their school lunches 
  • Organizing their study schedule
  • Choice around clothes and fashion
  • Plan their own routines (e.g. bedtime)
  • Selecting their hobbies
  • Negotiating responsibilities and contributions in the house
  • Choosing a family activity 

You can give suggestions and guidance – but let them do the deciding. As they get older, you increase choice making opportunities. The more comfortable they get with choice making, the more confidence and resilience they build. They will have more experiences that send the message: “I can make decisions, and no matter what the outcome is I can handle it.”

Your teen may choose an outfit that someone at school comments on. Or maybe they’ll pack a lunch that is too small and come home hungry.

They will be okay. And they will learn about themselves and others from those experiences.

  1. Let your teen ride out the consequences

You don’t want your teen to fail everything of course, or to act like you don’t care what they do. Experiencing natural consequences is a way to build their resilience, so when things don’t go well or there is a negative experience they know they will be okay. They will know from experience that they can learn from mistakes and glean a lesson next time.

Let’s say they break their phone because of what you consider negligent behaviour (aka it finds itself underneath the dirty laundry piled on their bed and gets knocked off during a frantic phone search and rescue mission….just saying it could happen). The hard thing: they have to

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earn the money to fix it and go without in the interim. 

As a parent you can use natural consequences as an opportunity to reflect with your teen – here are some questions to consider:

  • What can they do differently next time? 
  • What are the expectations around the situation going forward? 
  • How can they handle a similar situation in the future?
  • What did they learn about themselves that might help them in the future? 
  • When might they need a little help?
  1. Find the areas where your teen shines and get them to do it as often as possible. If they enjoy sports or art, encourage them to join community activities. Or they have a passion for something, consider volunteering opportunities. Or maybe, your teen is drawn to social issues, get them to organize a rally or do something at their school. 

Having your teen dial into opportunities to highlight their strengths and develop new skills will build their confidence. Then, when things come up that they struggle with, it’ll be that much easier to tackle it.

  1. Let them know about your own failures. This is a really important piece of parenting when it comes to building resilience. Share with your teen times when you faced challenging things, did things outside of your comfort zone, failed, or made mistakes. Tell them what you did to get through it and what you learned. It’s good for your teen to see that you’ve messed up and survived.
  2. Challenge your teen to do something that scares them every day. I’ve known a few people to use this as a daily practice and it can be hard at first, and then transforms into something creative and kind of fun! 

Challenging yourself to do something that scares you every day, builds that belief that “I can do hard things!”. It also minimizes the acuity of anxiety, by creating new patterns in the brain that look a little less like: I feel anxiety- I can’t handle it- I avoid the situation or default it to someone else to handle it AND a lot more like: I feel anxiety- I take action- I can handle it- I keep doing things that I want and know I am capable.

They can truly start to see that most often, regardless of the outcome, they’ll be okay. It doesn’t have to be a huge scary thing – it can be things like talking to someone next to them, wearing something eccentric or fun, trying out for the volleyball team, etc.

When to Step In

If your teen is at risk of being seriously hurt – bullying, threats (physical, emotional, psychological), or harassment of any sort, you certainly want to step in. There will be times like this when parent support will be absolutely necessary.

If none of these serious things are on the table, then step back and allow your teen to figure things out on their own. You can let them know you’re there to talk to, validate their feelings, answer questions, or provide some guidance.

The Happiness Pill Program

As a teen life coach, I know it can take a lot of practice as parents to support your teen through their anxiety. A lot of questions and concerns come up along the way. It can be a heartbreaking, lonely journey to see your teen lose their confidence, motivation, and joy as anxiety ramps up. The urge to continue fixing it for them can be strong!

I created a 6-month coaching program for teens so they can not only survive the uncomfortable, difficult situations they experience with anxiety, but to thrive in their life. 

The parent component focuses on giving YOU the tools to navigate anxiety alongside your teen while building their resilience to create a life of joy and happiness! You have access to a community of parents like you and a place to gather tools and resources to ensure you are equipped with the very best for your teen.

Check out The Happiness Pill Program here. And when you’re ready to move your teen through anxiety and into joy, send us an email at info@pyramidpsychology.com


portrait of Chantal outside in a fieldChantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook. 

How Control Can Help Your Anxious Teen

I was listening to a podcast this week and they were talking about choice and control being such an important part in helping your anxious teen manage their anxiety. And it really is!

… Technically, control is an illusion; there is very little we can truly control. But, before I send you running into despair with that thought, let me tell you how you can help your teen (and yourself) learn how to manage that aspect of their mind – and create their own sense of control.

girl in orange sweater sitting behind a couch

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What is control for your anxious teen?

Having a sense of control for your teen is a big deal. It’s about having agency – choices, decision making power, actions, plans, etc. Such as things they truly have some say about.

Ever had your teen pushback when it comes to helping out around the house because you’ve “forced” them to do something they don’t like or feel like doing? If you’ve found yourself cleverly giving them options, like the time they complete the chore or which responsibility they’d like to take on, you might have noticed that resistance just fade away. Because, as soon as your brain sees choices and options, it reduces stress and anxiety around a circumstance. It also provides a sense of safety, knowing there is an action you can take- something to be done about it.

Think of when your teen is preparing for a presentation. There will be some things that aren’t in their control – their teacher’s expectations, parameters around the project rules, due date, etc.

Thus, encouraging agency and control for your anxious teen is about helping them see where they can control things… What are the elements of choice with their presentation? – the theme, who they can work with (if the teacher allows this), the time and effort they put in, the type of project delivery (creative, visual, digital), etc.

So, if your teen is experiencing social anxiety, worrying about being judged, or not liked, they can look at it like this: What is within their control? What situations they put themselves in? How they might respond? Or how often they want to challenge themselves, their perspective, their attitude, etc.

How is control related to your anxious teen?

young teen girl covering her face

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Anxiety happens when your teen believes their capacity to handle a situation is far smaller than the issue itself. It Minimizes your teen’s belief that they can handle difficult situations or the unknowns –  “I can’t handle meeting a new person” … “I can’t handle getting a bad grade”, etc.

Anxiety lives in the future, meaning a lot of the thoughts your teen has are thoughts and feelings about things that haven’t even happened yet. So it instills the uncertainty and “what ifs”. 

Therefore, creating control for your teen – showing them they have choice – is so important to counteract some of the effects of the anxious brain. If your teen has agency (choice, decision-making, actions, etc.) over their life it gives them a sense of control, which minimizes their anxiety. It reinforces the concept of, “this is my life and I can do something about this”.

Strategies for Control.

Hula Hoop

girl with hula hoop and explanations around her.

Photo from Canva

The Hula Hoop is an exercise for your anxious teen to see the control and choice they have.

Ask your teen to imagine a hula hoop all around them. Everything within the circle of the hula hoop are the things within their control; things they can change, take action on, etc. The things on the outside of your teen’s hula hoop are things they have very little influence or control over.

The more energy, time, thought and effort your teen puts into things on the outside of their hoop – the things they have little to no control over – the more it feeds the machine of their anxiety.

It is more effective for your teen to concentrate on what’s in their hula hoop – the things they have a say over, actions they can take, choices they can make, etc.

Because, mapping out a specific situation is something I often ask the teens I work with to do. I will ask them to draw an inner and outer circle and write out the things they feel are in and out of their control. It is a visual that often surprises teens. Teens will say things like “I didn’t see the things in my control”, “I didn’t realize how much I was overthinking on the things  I don’t have control over”, etc.

Thus, the  “I” or “my” stuff… I can control my thoughts – which thoughts I pay attention to- my opinions- my behaviours- these find themselves within the hula hoop. I get to choose my actions – what I am going to do (or not do) about this. I get to choose my attitude – which perspective or mindset am I going to have? My perspective. My opinion. Etc.

The stuff on the outside of the hula hoop is “other people stuff” – things others are doing that we can’t control. And then of course the usual things we have no say over – the weather, traffic, etc.

One thing that may come up for your teen is “I can’t control my feelings”. And yes, it’s true… Your teen can’t control feelings that bubble up for them. However, there is definitely a choice and say in terms of how they are going to react and respond to their feelings. They can choose what to do with them.

Is This True?

dark haired girl lying down on the grass

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Encourage your teen to take a moment and think about the truth behind their anxious thoughts. Guide them to find the truth behind the things their anxious brain is telling them.

So, your teen can ask themselves: “how true is this thing? What is the evidence of this thing you’re afraid of/anxious about? What’s the likelihood that this will actually happen?” Invite  your teen to ask themselves these questions to challenge the anxious brain a little bit.

You can also ask how your teen can respond to the situation. What can they do about it if the fear comes up?

Some of the anxious thoughts your teen may have are considered ‘Thinking Traps’ – thoughts that play tricks on them, bend the truth, or alter reality. You can get an in-depth understanding of these different types of thoughts – and what to do about it – with my blog article ‘Thought Distortions: You Have the Power to Choose Happiness

FEAR Acronym

The FEAR stands for False Evidence (and sometimes Emotions) Appearing Real. You can use it to remind your teen  that the anxious part of their brain has all kinds of things to say, and some of the time (a LOT of the time) those  fears are based in uncertainty. They are things that have a very small likelihood of happening. Or, if they do happen, are things your teen can do or say something about. 

Brian Clark wrote a great blog article on fear and anxiety using this acronym. You can read it here.

So, in addition to these tools, you can also find opportunities to build your teen’s sense of control, choice, autonomy, and agency.

Inspirit their capacity to handle stuff through small choices every day.  Allow them to make decisions around chores, organizing their homework, choices with friendship issues, contributing to the family, etc. Encourage them even if it ends up being a non desirable outcome . Because this shows them that they can make a mistake and still be okay. It builds resilience and helps them grab onto the belief that they are in control with decisions in their life.

So, the older your teen is the more you want to get them to do this. Thus, this is a great strand of development that’s so necessary for our kids, and reduces their anxiety.

The Happiness Pill Programthe happiness pill logo

Anxiety is hard on your teen (and can be for you too). It takes away energy and motivation, stops them from enjoying friends, family, activities, etc. As a parent, it can make you feel helpless.

I developed The Happiness Pill Program – a 6-month coaching program – to give both you and your teen hope. It gets your teen from a place of stress and anxiety to a place of contentment, motivation, and confidence.

We start by mapping out what your teen desires their life to look like, and how to get there – including communication with you. Then, we practice creating agency and control with weekly calls, for both you and your teen.

The Happiness Pill Program is a community of parents and teens going through the same thing as you!

Read all about it here. Email info@pyramidpsychology.com to register or ask any questions.

 


portrait of Chantal outside in a fieldChantal Côté (she/her) is a psychologist and teen life coach living in Calgary, Alberta. After over a decade in non-profit and community mental health, Chantal started Pyramid Psychology, a practice dedicated to supporting teens – a population she is constantly amazed by. Chantal is on a mission to help 100,000 teen girls (and their parents) build bulletproof mindsets so they can weather the ups and downs of life. As part of this goal, Chantal has had the privilege of speaking at various events – virtual and live – to support teens and parents.

Outside of this passion, Chantal is often in nature, writing poetry, playing ball hockey and hanging out with her loved ones.

Each week, Chantal writes a blog article in response to issues she hears from the parents and teens she connects with. If you have something you’d like to read more on – email ideas and questions to info@pyramidpsychology.com or DM us via Instagram or Facebook.