Supporting young people with anxiety

Having anxiety is scary. The pressure, worry, and fear of the unknown can cause misery, depression, breakdown in communication, and self-loathing.

Adults have multiple ways to access support, to help them process uncomfortable thoughts feelings, and emotions and hopefully, start down the road to mental wellness.

For children or young people struggling with anxiety, it can be difficult to articulate what’s going on inside their heads. As a parent, carer, or concerned adult how do you help if they won’t tell you how they’re feeling?

When it comes to anxiety one size doesn’t fit all. There’s Separation Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Phobias, General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Social Anxiety, Covid Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Panic Disorder.

Everyone has good and bad days, it’s a natural part of life, we can’t be happy all the time. But how can we differentiate, especially in someone else, between a bad day and a bad patch that’s linked to anxiety?

Perhaps you’ve noticed a change in a young person’s mood or behaviour? Have they become withdrawn, eating more, or less, staying up later than usual, finding it hard to sleep, lying in bed awake for hours on end, mood swings, tears, frustration, refusing to socialise or being angry could all be signs and symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder.

The first thing I’d urge anyone to do who is concerned about a young person in their care is to talk to them. Find a good time and place where you won’t be disturbed – make sure there aren’t any distractions, mobile phones, television, or other people around. Choose a time when they might be more receptive and open to having a conversation, just after a meal (trying to talk to a hungry teen is never fun), or a time they’re awake and alert – mornings or early evening.

Try and find a neutral place to talk, so don’t go into their bedroom or personal space. It might make them defensive which isn’t the best place to start a conversation. The kitchen, living room or even having a walk together are all good places to have a chat.

Be honest, say you’ve noticed that they aren’t their usual self and you’re concerned. Open ended questions are likely to get a fuller response. How’re you feeling? What’s going on, you don’t seem yourself? Is there something you want to talk about? What’s worrying you?

My guess is that most teens will say they’re fine, most of us do, don’t we? If someone asks how we are, we rarely consider telling them about the truth in case they don’t really want to hear what struggles or situations we have in our lives. So instead, we say we’re ‘fine thanks, you?’ and they reply ‘fine’ then we all go about our day carrying our troubles with us.

So, when your teen says they’re fine, ask twice. Don’t repeat the same question but ask them if, they’re sure? Give an example of something that you noticed is out of character for the. Let them know that you really care, and you want to know how you can help.

Don’t force them to talk to you, but reassure them that if or when, they want to talk to you, that you want to listen and you won’t be mad or angry or judge what they tell you (you MUST stick to this). And if you have overreacted or become angry in the past, let them know that you regret what happened last time and this time, you’ll do better.

Some young people might prefer to communicate how they are feeling through words, if so encourage them to write you a letter to express their emotions. Explain that if you don’t know what’s happening, that you can’t help them.

If they do open-up to you, don’t minimise their feelings, by saying that it’s nothing serious, or that it’s silly. What’s important to a teen or young person might feel quite small or insignificant to an adult, but to them, it’s everything.

We can speak about 125 words per minute, but we can process far more than that through non-verbal signs and signals, body language, eye contact, the pace, pitch, and tone of conversation. So, it’s tempting to cut someone off mid-sentence because we can anticipate what they are going to say. Try not to do that, instead really pay attention to what they say and how they say it, you’ll be able to detect when there’s more, they want to tell you. Even if they tell you something that feels scary to you, try not to overreact. Remember it’s OK to have silence in a conversation, no need to rush in with a solution- let them get everything out in the open, at their own speed.

When they’ve finished thank them for sharing, how are they feeling now? Repeat back what they have told you, to ensure that you have fully understood what they said and how they feel. Make certain you are on the same page.
Ask them how things could be made better, encourage them to work on a solution. Offer to help if you can.

Then give them a little space to process their thoughts and yours.

If you’re really concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of a young person, after you’ve spoken to them – please consider making an appointment with your GP for further guidance and advice. Include the young person in this process and explain why you feel a little extra support would be valuable.

It’s been a strange year for lots of us, and anxiety is something that many people struggle with on varying degrees, the important thing to know about anxiety is that it is treatable, and it is curable and just because you feel this way now, you won’t forever.

My Top Three Tips for managing anxiety:

  1. Learn how to control your breathing, slowing down breathing, lowers the heart rate and sends a signal to the brain that you are OK and safe- this will reduce the feelings of panic
  2. Talking helps, confide in someone who won’t judge you
  3. Anxiety often stems from worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, worrying about a future event, conversation, or experience. Try to live more in the moment- this can be achieved by practicing mindfulness- there’s lots of research into mindfulness and its effectiveness in treating and managing anxiety. A good place to start is by looking online for some simple mindfulness techniques.

For more information of how to support young people with their mental health visit Youngminds.org.uk

This post was written by Shannon Humphrey, a Youth and Adult First Aid for Mental Health Instructor. Find out more about her and the work she does at www.pathwaysforpositivity.com

 

Photo: “Lincoln Memorial/Washington Monument, Aug 2009 – 04” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

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