“I’m ugly.” “Everyone hates me.” “I’m going to fail—I’m too stupid to pass this test.”
Why are teens and pre–teens often insecure, anxious and over–sensitive? Adolescence is a risky, dangerous time of life. Your child is attempting to figure out who he is, how he wants to be in the world and how others perceive him. In some ways, the teen years are like the terrible twos, only the stakes are much higher, because your child’s job is to form his identity and separate from you.
It’s also a time when parents often go from having a special, positive bond with their child to a phase where your kid wants to push you away. At the same time, he’s also pulling you in for reassurance. It’s as if your child is saying, “I love you, I hate you; I need your help, you’re embarrassing me; stay close, but I don’t want you to walk next to me on the street.” For all these reasons and more, adolescence is an anxiety–provoking, tumultuous time, both for your child and for you.
The message to your child is, “I will be there to help you but I’m not going through it—you are.”
Coaching Your Child
Here are six tips to help you when your child is feeling anxious and insecure.
1. Check yourself. If you have an anxious, insecure teen at home, the first step is to monitor your own anxiety around your child’s stress. In some ways, it’s important to be a great actor or actress as a parent. The goal is to be calmly available to your child and take your own anxiety out of the equation. Ask yourself, “Is this my child’s anxiety or mine coming up?” From there, you’ll have a sense of, “Okay, my child is worried because she thinks her friends are mad at her, but I’m really anxious about how peer pressure is influencing her.” Remember that you and your child are different, and your thinking comes from two different places. The bottom line is that you can’t change your child’s feelings or the situation, but you can help her through it.
So separate your own feelings from your child’s feelings. As hard as it is, you have to let your kids experience pain and anxiety. Realize that you can work to help your child, but you can’t live the painful moments for her.
I also recommend that you talk about your own anxiety with someone you trust—your spouse, a friend, a counselor. It’s very normal for parents to feel anxiety about their kid’s anxiety, especially if it’s connected to a real situation.
Remember, it’s not the anxiety itself, but how we manage our anxiety that’s important; again, the key is to separate your own anxiety from your child’s. You can help them through it, but they’re the ones who have to live it.
2. Reassure your child—but give him space when he needs it. Know when to step in and support your child and when to give him space. Your job is to reassure and not overreact. Take cues from your child to know when to step in; try to have a sense of when he wants to talk and when he wants his space. If you say something and it seems to just rev him up, take a step back. It’s a fine line for parents, but so important to be there when he needs you and to really listen. The message to your child is, “I will be there to help you but I’m not going through it—you are.”
3. Help normalize your child’s anxious feelings. When your child comes to you with something she’s anxious about, try to stay objective. Don’t make her feel as if what she’s saying is silly; let her know that a lot of people get nervous about things. For example, if your child has a big presentation for English class and is really stressed, you could say, “It’s normal to feel anxious at times like these; everyone does. We all have areas that are scary for us.” You could continue to coach her by saying, “When I’m nervous, I go take a walk or call a friend and talk. When you have those feelings, what do you think you could do to calm down?” It’s also helpful to remind your child of when she did something successfully before. “Remember when you were in the play last year? You did a great job, and I’m sure you will again.”
By the way, if there really is something traumatic happening in your child’s life, like a divorce, a significant move, or a death, this is a highly anxious time for both of you. But even when things are most difficult, it’s important to respond to your child by being reassuring and supportive; try to normalize some of her feelings. (This also may be a time when you seek out additional help from your child’s pediatrician or a counselor.)
4. Be helpful and supportive, but don’t take over. Help your child if he’s having trouble making choices. Be supportive and do what you can to help, but don’t jump in and try to do it for him. For example, you could say, “What can I do to be helpful? If you need extra time to work on your project, I can go to the library for you and pick up the books you requested.” It’s also a good idea to talk to your child and tell him what to expect. A lot of anxiety is fear of the unknown. If someone can walk us through a situation before we do it, it can help a lot.
5. Don’t tease or minimize. While it might seem that your child is upset about something that doesn’t seem to be that serious to you, remember that these are real feelings for her and it’s important not to minimize them. It’s also important to tread gently, and to respond kindly and respectfully to her. Let’s say your child is convinced she doesn’t have anything to wear to school in the morning. Don’t make fun of her for being nervous or tell her it’s not a big deal. Again, help normalize the situation by saying that a lot of kids feel the same way, and then try to break things down into bite–sized pieces. Maybe she needs to narrow down her choices and pick out her clothes the night before school.
6. Don’t negate. It’s important not to negate what your child is feeling, even if they’re exaggerating. For example, your daughter might say something like, “I’m so ugly; nothing looks good on me.” Don’t negate her by saying, “No, you’re not. That’s ridiculous!” The truth is, kids do have a distorted perception of their bodies during adolescence, and in fact, their bodies are changing so quickly it would be hard for them to be realistic. The media also offers a distorted view of what kids should look like during adolescence, which adds to their frustration. It’s a fine line for parents: kids want reassurance, but they don’t really buy it from their parents because we aren’t cool. While kids seem to value the feedback they get from peers most at this point, you still need to give them reassurance and say positive things when you can.
I think if your child says, “I’m so ugly, I look terrible,” you could always respond by saying, “I’m your mom; you’ll always be beautiful to me.” Later, try to find something good to say about them. Use “hypodermic affection” by giving your child little, unexpected compliments out of the blue. You might say, “Wow, that color looks great on you!” or “That hair length really suits your face.” Your child may act like she doesn’t care what you say, but believe me, she’s listening and it matters to her.
Note: Because anxiety in children and young adolescents can often have physical symptoms, (e.g. stomach aches, headaches, lack of energy), be sure to have your pediatrician rule out any medical issues to make sure it’s not a problem with physical origins. If your child’s anxiety is such that he isn’t going to school or seeing friends and is isolating himself from your family, it’s time to seek outside help from a professional in your community.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.