Halstrom Blog Post
Tips for Handling Stress & Anxiety
By: Lisa Bournoutian Sandoval M.A., M.Ed.
When it Rains, Look for RAINBOWS
Anyone who has ever been in a heated discussion with their significant other knows the word “relax” tends to elicit the opposite reaction. In addition, anyone who has ever been overwhelmed with an extensive to-do list knows the words “don’t worry” don’t actually alleviate any worry. For many of us, whether you’re a new parent or a high level executive, stress and anxiety are expected. We set high expectations for ourselves as parents, spouses, employees, and just about any role we find ourselves in. We all want to put our best foot forward, to impress, and to be recognized for what we bring to the table. And when we find ourselves in a heightened emotional state and we feel our anxiety kicking in, we’ve learned how to cope and self-soothe. But what about our children? Why is it more and more children are coming forward and sharing their feelings of anxiety and stress? Are their middle and high school experiences so different from when we walked in their shoes twenty years ago? Are their social experiences as young adults that far removed from ours? Absolutely.
Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition, it is the number one health complaint amongst young people, particularly those age thirteen to eighteen. Working with sixth through twelfth graders for the past five years in alternative education, as well as having two middle schoolers of my own, those statistics are not surprising to me. I have worked with countless families who have all shared a similar story: My child was fine, no complaints, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t. Some parents even described the sudden change as shocking, as though their child had fallen off an imaginary cliff and into an unknown abyss. And they had. So what happened between “my child was fine, no complaints” and “all of a sudden, they weren’t?”
Anxiety is that voice in your head that tells you to keep going, not as a motivator but as a worrisome critic who is fearful of judgment. In a recent article published by the New York Times Magazine titled, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety,” it’s apparent we need to help today’s anxious teens calibrate their emotions. Specifically, we need to understand how much we should be protecting them from their fears and how much we should be pushing them to face their fears? In order to find that balance, we need to understand anxiety and its fundamental purpose.
Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. Anxiety is a natural human emotion. Everyone has a degree of anxiety in their emotional hardwiring and that is precisely why it is often overlooked as concerning behavior, particularly in its early stages. However, those with anxiety disorders frequently have excessive and persistent fears about everyday situations. As Philip Kendall, Director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia explains, “[Anxiety] has an evolutionary purpose, after all; it helps us detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Highly anxious people, though, have an overactive fight-or-flight response that perceives threats where there are none.” In many cases, feeling anxious is appropriate - walking through a bad neighborhood, observing unusual behavior from someone in a closed space, or even having to demonstrate mastery on an important test. But the amount of anxiety our teens are feeling in their normal day-to-day activities is cause for great concern. And while anxiety doesn’t discriminate by race or gender, socioeconomic status does play a significant role.
I once heard a parent say, “What do teenagers raised in affluent communities have to be anxious about? They have everything they want.” But research has proven otherwise revealing that privileged youth are some of the most emotionally distressed teens in America: “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic….[they] never get to a point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop.’ There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. [These] kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”
I met with a father just a few weeks ago and listened as he proudly described his daughter as someone who was always pushing herself. “She is incredibly self-motivated,” he told me. “We’ve never had to push her because she always pushes herself. We’re lucky. She sets a very high standard for herself and she takes school very seriously.” And while that may sound like a father’s dream come true, it’s important to note he was meeting with me in consideration of placing his daughter at one of our campuses because she had been out of school for two months due to health reasons. When I asked him to elaborate on her recent health concerns, that’s where his story transitioned from “my child was fine, no complaints” to “all of a sudden, she wasn’t.”
Regardless of how many families told me stories of anxiety taking over their child’s once positive outlook, I didn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation until I was the one sitting in an office with my own son.
Last year, my son hit his breaking point. He was having a tough time with his teachers, struggling to complete homework, managing social dynamics, and fighting for a starting position on his club soccer team. His father and I knew he was a bit more anxious than usual (those who have ever tried to ask a thirteen-year-old boy if they’re feeling ‘ok’ know the likelihood you’ll get more than a two word response is slim to none), but we had no idea how much it was all affecting him. When he was finally able to express his feelings one afternoon, what I got was a tear-filled proclamation that he just wanted to die. I was paralyzed with fear and confusion. Yes, my son’s always been a bit of worrier, and yes, he’s always been a bit anxious, and yes, teenagers can be a bit dramatic at times, but did I just hear a suicidal thought? From my son? Did he even understand what he was saying? Did he get that not wanting to live anymore would certainly alleviate his anxiety, but it would also mean that he would be dead?
The very next day we were in a psychologist’s office trying to figure out what had pushed him to make such a desperate statement. Why was he so unhappy? Although I had met with countless families as an enrollment advisor and listened to their personal stories about anxiety, and I was now watching my son sort out the skeletons in his own anxiety closet, I still wasn’t expecting the lukewarm reaction I received in her office that day. She didn’t seem to bat an eyelash at the fact that he had said it; she wanted to jump right in and assess the actual weight of his claim. She went on to ask some questions that were tough to hear: “Have you considered how you might kill yourself? Have you thought of a plan? Do you feel this way a lot?” Once she was confident that he was not a danger to himself, she shared that teens frequently expressed these types of thoughts but that my son seemed ok. Certainly not the word I would have chosen to describe him at that moment.
We headed home and my detective hat went on. As I researched the emotional triggers and coping strategies tied to stress and anxiety with the fiery fervor of my college days, I was amazed by the number of stories and statistics that followed this very simple plot line: My child was fine, no complaints, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t.
In a Time article titled, “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright,” adolescents today are struggling with mental health issues more than ever. In 2015, about 30% of girls and 20% of boys-- totaling 6.3 million teens--have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, and that is a conservative number at best since many teens struggle in silence and do not seek help to ease their suffering. Although there are numerous articles and studies talking about anxiety and depression, each one highlighting a different story and a different kid, there seems to be one common thread that runs through all of them: the pressure to be perfect, underscored with the inundation of social media in the lives of teens today, has created a culture of hyper-connected restlessness. Basically, there is no power off switch. As parents and educators, how can we help our kids before they hit that point?
Whether the pressure is internal or external, we need to manage expectations. No one is perfect. And while we can try to remind our kids about this very important fact over and over again, helping them develop a growth mindset is the best strategy we have. Children who are praised for their effort and process feel much less pressure to be perfect. A growth mindset leaves room for error and that error is recognized as a challenge that ultimately will propel them to grow. A growth mindset welcomes words like “try” and “not yet,” and creates a safe mental and emotional place for children, especially teens, to be self-aware and practical about their expectations.
Mindfulness techniques are also a great tool to teach our teens, especially in today’s technology-laden world. We all know it’s important to be mindful and present, but more often than not we forget to unplug and recharge our own emotional batteries. Today’s kids are always waiting for the next big thing -- to announce, to post, to like, to comment on -- and as a result, they are never truly living in the moment. As parents, as we run down the list of important things to do (...did you make your bed, did you brush your teeth, did you eat, did you do your homework?...), we need to remind our kids to incorporate moments of calm into their day. We need to start asking them if they took a moment for themselves and if they took a minute to unplug. We need to help them cut the proverbial cord between their device and their hand, and reframe their current filtered impression of reality. We need to remind our anxious teens that they cannot control everything. We need to remind our anxious teens to let go of the idea of being perfect. We need to remind our anxious teens to see their anxious thoughts as separate from themselves. We need to remind our anxious teens to be proud of their accomplishments, no matter how small. And most importantly, we need to remind our anxious teens that life is a journey and not a destination. To take a deep breath, count to ten, and enjoy the ride.
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