Amy McManus, LMFT
Resources for Teens and Their Parents
to Manage Anxiety This Holiday Season
by Amy McManus, LMFT
Resources for teens and their parents to manage anxiety this holiday season
By: Amy McManus
It’s the holiday season, and with it comes a fair amount of anxiety for all of our adult clients as they shop for gifts, plan celebrations, and gear up emotionally for all that wonderful family togetherness.a
For our clients who have children in high school and college, there is yet another anxiety-producing event this month – Finals Week. Kids in college are experiencing an unprecedented amount of anxiety, and it is going to be in full swing in December as they prepare for, and take, final exams. Many of these kids will call home for support.
If your client can handle these calls with aplomb they will feel empowered as parents. This, in turn, will give them the psychic energy boost to face the other challenges in front of them this holiday season. Mother-in-Law’s nasty little digs? Check. Dad’s new young wife? Check. Uncle Nick’s fifth glass of Scotch? Check.
Anxiety in teenagers has recently been going through the roof.
According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, in 2016, 41% of college freshman “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do”, as opposed to 29% in 2010, and just 18% in 1985. That’s a 25% increase in just the last six years.
If your client’s child made it to college, they have already developed important skills like organizing, studying, writing, and performing under pressure in tests and presentations. The skill they may not have developed is the ability to deal with their anxiety.
Here are some ways you can show your clients to help their kids manage their test anxiety.
The first thing to explain is that many students have internalized anxiety as a primary way of responding to the world. They know that in small doses, their anxiety spurs them on to do their best. The problem starts when they become defined by these successes.
These kids do not say to themselves, “I tried hard and succeeded”, they say, “I am a success.”
Remember when they were getting letters from colleges in the spring? Each acceptance or rejection was a measure of themselves as a person. Many kids actually skip school on the day that they get a rejection letter, unable to face the questions of their friends and fellow students.
Often parents co-opt their kids’ successes as well, trading stories of colleges their kids got into. The parents whose kids aren’t going to college lay low, and the Ivy League parents tell everyone about their kid’s acceptance. (I can say this, because I have been the parent of both, and I know that there are many, many reasons for each kid’s options and choices!) This behavior only reinforces the child’s idea that they are defined by their successes.
Parents of successful kids may not understand why this is a problem, so it is important to explain how success is a result of behavior, not character.
Parents are often tempted to reassure their kids that they will ace that test or presentation, but that is not the way to help their kids manage their anxiety. The kids know that at some point they will fail to produce the desired results, and when that day comes, they will be a failure.
There is a better way for parents to support their kids.
Parents need to remind their kids that it is inevitable they will be disappointed with their performance on something, and that in spite of this they are still wonderful people. Failure is an inevitable part of life, and doesn’t mean that they are failures. It simply means they tried and failed.
Parents need to be ready for this discussion with specific concrete examples of the very excellent character of their kids. Instances of empathy, altruism, and sacrifice for their fellow man are some of the values they may want to illustrate. This reminds their kids that their parents believe they are wonderful already, whether or not they succeed in any particular endeavor.
Secondly, parents need to be ready to address anxiety as a meta-emotion.
In my practice I have seen many kids who are extremely worried about the anxiety they will experience in the room when they are giving a final presentation or taking a final exam.
We can prepare them with meditation downloads, breathing exercises, calming apps on their phones, and these all work to a certain extent.
However, when the student has done their meditation and their breathing, then walks into the room and begins to experience some anxiety, their brain tells them, “Oops. That didn’t work.” Now they panic.
The best prevention for this preparation.
Your client can remind their child about all the times they felt anxious, yet were still able to perform adequately. Again, it is a good idea for your client to have some specific examples in mind. Moreover, they can simply ask their kid, “Can you remember when you felt a fair amount of anxiety in a final exam, but were still able to do okay?” They can also share their own stories of times they felt anxiety but managed to finish a test without humiliating themselves.
Anxiety as a meta-emotion is insidious. Nevertheless, I have found that many students are surprised to realize that what they are actually feeling is anxiety about their anxiety. Once they understand this, the door is open for them to address it directly. Often this is all they need to substantially reduce their anxiety.
The best thing about teaching your clients how to help their kids in high school and college manage anxiety, is that it is such a low-pressure way for them to learn how to address their own anxiety. A stealth intervention, if you will.
“Happy Holidays” can actually be – more or less – happy. With a little advance planning for the anxiety that so often accompanies the season, we can prepare our clients so they are ready to meet the challenges ahead and enjoy the celebrations!
Amy McManus, LMFT, specializes in communication between parents and teens. Amy previously worked for four years as a school counselor in various high schools in Los Angeles. She has raised four teenagers of her own, and is married to a high school teacher and administrator. Amy’s weekly blog (http://www.thrivetherapyla.com/blog/) offers parenting tips and other mental health information for parents and teens. You can contact Amy at email@example.com.