(p. 143) Parenting Anxious Teens
Parents often have difficulty setting limits with their anxious teen. It seems counterintuitive to punish or threaten punishment for a teen who is clearly anxious and distressed. While you might handle a teen who is refusing to go to school because she simply does not want to go differently from a teen who is refusing to go to school because she is anxious, the end result should still be the same—the child must go to school. Also, parents tend to tolerate behaviors from their anxious teen (yelling, whining, even cursing) that they would not tolerate in other settings, thinking that the teen’s obvious distress makes that behavior “okay.” But the lack of negative consequences, combined with often being allowed to avoid the anxious situation, reinforces both the bad behavior and the avoidance. Rules are rules, and no one in the family should be able to get away with bad behavior without consequences.
Also, although our emotions may not be completely under our control, our behaviors are. We have all had moments when we have been so angry at others we’ve wanted to yell, scream, or even strike out at them, but we did not do any of those things because those behaviors are not appropriate. Similarly, your teen must learn that feeling anxious does not give her the right to act inappropriately. She may be very upset; she may feel anxious and angry and frustrated all at once. But she still needs to obey house rules, and she needs to be able to calm herself. This is a valuable life skill for her to develop, for although this program is designed to treat her panic disorder, she will certainly experience anxiety throughout her life, and she must be able to cope with that anxiety appropriately.
Allowing Natural Consequences (or How Not to Enable Your Teen’s Anxiety)
One way to get out of the trap of feeling like the bad guy is to allow the natural consequences of your teen’s anxiety, rather than helping her negotiate around those consequences. For example, parents often drive (p. 144) their teen to school because otherwise her anxiety in the morning will cause her to be late. Typically, the school has consequences for being late (e.g., detention, demerits, etc.) that are in place to help teens learn to be on time. By helping her avoid the consequence, you are reinforcing (a) that she needs or deserves special accommodations because of her anxiety and (b) that she can put off going to school in the morning because you will make sure she gets there on time.
Expecting/Anticipating Anxiety and Anxious Situations
As described in the handout “Parenting Anxious Youth: 101,” parents often become so accustomed to their teen’s anxiety that they anticipate it for her. For example, pulling the teen out of potentially anxiety-provoking situations in advance or asking questions repeatedly before an event (e.g., “Are you sure you’re okay with this? Do you think you can do this?”) or during an event (“Are you holding up okay? How are you? Do you need me to do anything?”) signal to the teen that she is not capable of handling the situation. Also, asking repeatedly how the teen is feeling will cause her to hyperfocus on her physical sensations; this level of attention given to feelings can often increase the likelihood of panic.
Instead of focusing on your teen’s anxiety, you should be indicating to her that she is completely capable of coping with the situation and that her anxiety is natural and harmless. Do this by expecting that she will attend family functions/outings (e.g., “Remember, we’ve got Aunt Sue’s BBQ this weekend.”), offering occasional words of encouragement (e.g., “You’re doing so great!”), focusing on the positive (e.g., “This is such a fun BBQ!”), and generally letting her have the space needed to experience and enjoy the situation.