7 Tips for Talking to Your Anxious Teen

It can be hard to know how to talk to your anxious teen when they are emotional. You feel like you aren’t being effective and they feel it too.

I hear it in my office all the time from the teens I work with.

“My parents don’t get it!”

“They just don’t understand!”

“He doesn’t even listen to me!”

“My mom just makes me feel worse!”

I know the parents that these kids are talking about well enough to know that they mean well. They want to connect with their kids and show support. They want to help their teens move through their feelings to a place where they can manage them and feel better.

The trouble is they just don’t know how to do it and chances are you are the same way. 

As a parent, you have tried to calm your teenager down and reassure them when they are upset and anxious. You try to think about what you would want someone to say to you. You try to get them to see it from your point of view. It just doesn’t work though. They walk away still upset, they cry more, or they learn to not tell you what is going on at all.

The following are some tips on how to really show your teen you are listening and help them understand their feelings and calm down in their own time.

Stay Calm

You are emotionally attached to your kids. You don’t like seeing them anxious and you want to be able to fix it for them. But when you can’t kiss their pain away it is frustrating and upsetting. You begin to get upset too as your emotions attune to theirs. It is as if the mood becomes contagious. If you let yourself get upset though, they are likely to feed off your feelings too. This can cause them to become even more upset.

What your anxious teen needs most is for you to stay calm and grounded. This allows them to calm down and get to your level instead of you meeting them at theirs. When I was learning EMDR Therapy, my trainer said “The strongest nervous system in the room wins.” What she meant is that we have to keep hold of our calm demeanor and feelings no matter how intense another person’s emotions are. This allows them to feel safe and to begin to attune to our emotional state instead of us taking on theirs.

Take some deep breaths and know that no matter how upset your child is now, it will be okay. The emotion will pass and if you are able to stay calm, you will have a good chance of helping them to move throught it.

Don’t Minimize His/Her Feelings

 “It’s not that big of a deal!”

“Just calm down!”

“Get over it!”

This is big. Refrain from minimizing your son or daughter’s feelings! This could look like the quotes above or could be more subtle. For instance, the message when trying to explain to someone experiencing a break-up that there are many fish in the sea or that they will go through a lot of break-ups comes across as “it’s not that big of a deal.”

This sends the message that their feelings don’t matter or that they are wrong for feeling a certain way. No one wants to be told that their emotions aren’t important. They will also come out of this interaction thinking “you just get it.”

Telling your child they have to get over their feelings or need to push through will inevitably cause them to shut down and withdraw from you. They will learn that they cannot trust you with their feelings in the future.

Hold off on advice giving

You have years and wisdom on your teenager. You may have experienced similar feelings or situations and whether you handled them well or not at the time, you learned a lot that you can share. It is wonderful that you are able to share your experience with your child but if you want them to be able to hear it, it is best that you wait and not share it too soon.

If they are still highly upset, they are still in the fight or flight state. This means that the frontal cortex (responsible for rational thinking) is off-line. They will not be able to really hear and consider your advice.

Let’s face it though. Even if your teen is calm enough to listen to you, he/she likely doesn’t want to be told what to do. Especially not by their parents.

Starting out with advice tells your son or daughter that it is not okay to feel the way they do, or that  you don’t think they are capable of figuring out a solution on their own. It also doesn’t give them the opportunity to learn the problem solving skills on their own.

Acknowledge and validate feelings

You can be very rational and logical but reasoning with an emotional person doesn’t work. Instead, they feel misunderstood. Try repeating what they are saying back to them instead and add in what you think they are feeling. 

 “You are worried about your exams.”

“Wow, you are really upset about the argument you had with your friend!”

You may think they are overreacting. You may think you wouldn’t feel the same way in their shoes. That’s not the point. The goal here is to reflect back what they are saying from their point of view. This not only shows that you are listening and understand but that you get why they are feeling the way they do. Once a person feels understood they are able to begin calming down.

After your teen has started to calm down, you can start to talk them through the situation.

Encourage Coping Skills

Once you validate their feelings they should be on their way to calming themselves down. If they still need a little help you can encourage them to do some things to calm down further. This could be deep belly breathing or using a mindfulness approach such as noticing what you can sense in your environment with the 5 senses.

Ask questions

I’ve already said you shouldn’t give advice, so what are you supposed to say? Ask questions. Make sure they are not leading, sarcastic, critical, or derogatory. You want to ask questions that are going to get them thinking about solutions to the problem on their own. Some examples of good questions to ask are:

“How do others you know handle situations like this? How has that worked for them?”

“What different options do you see?”

“How have you handled situations like this before? Did that work for you or not?”

“What do you think your feelings are trying to communicate to you?”

“What can you do to make this situation better?”

Be Patient

This process may take a bit longer than what you have been doing before. But it will be worth it. It will help your kids learn

  • to self-soothe
  • that you care about their feelings
  • that they can trust you
  • how to problem solve on their own
  • positive self-esteem

Over time it will end up taking less time to help them through this as they will become better able to do it themselves.

Another reason to be patient is that if it is different than what you have been doing, there will be an adjustment period. Your teens will expect your old behaviors and it may take a little for them to realize you are handling things differently. Be patient with them and give them time to see that you are working on how you handle their emotions. Their reaction to your improved skills may be more gradual than what you would hope for.