Helping Teens Deal With Fear and Anxiety


Gayani DeSilva, MD, author of "A Psychiatrists's Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween," joined us to talk about how we can help our teens deal with fear and anxiety.

For more information about Gayani's book, click here.

Fear and anxiety are different responses, and understanding the difference can help parents help their anxious child..

Fear is a cognitive construct generating a physiological response—it triggers the fight or flight response. This response is mediated by adrenalin (steroid hormones released to activate the flight or fight response). Fear is generated when afraid of a possible outcome—usually a fear of losing life or limb. But in the context of children, they may fear harm coming to their family members or friends, or not meeting expectations, or disappointing authority figures.

Allowing one’s self to be nervous instead of scared will avoid initiating a flight or flight response. Parents can validate their child's experience of anxiety, and help them understand it to be a helpful experience. Parents can explain to their child that nervousness is normal, and just means that they are excited and care about doing their best. They can use that energy to motivate them to do their best. Parents can say, "go ahead, be a little nervous, it means you really want this. And when you really want something, you can make it happen." Success comes from moving towards your challenges, not away from them.

Fear is a choice. Anyone can choose to be afraid or choose to accept the present circumstances. If one chooses to accept the present situation, then the adrenaline surge will not occur, then the mind and body will not be geared to fight or flight, and the mind and body can focus on obtaining all the data it needs and behave in a way to be successful at meeting any challenge. Parents can guide their child into imagining a positive or wanted outcome. "Ok, let's use your nervousness to imagine what you want to happen, and imagine how exciting that it going to feel when you get it."

The steps a parent can take with their child to quell fear and anxiety are simple: 1) guide them to choose to not be afraid, instead 2) help them accept (do not avoid) being anxious and nervous, 3) encourage them to use that anxiety to relate to others and to express their excitement, 4) remind them to speak from the heart 5) admit your anxiety to your child and offer reassurance, “I am nervous too. I want you to achieve your goals, and I want to be the one to help you do it. I will do what it takes to help you get what you need”

Anxiety can be a powerful tool. Avoiding it often leads to more anxiety, but accepting it allows for greater understanding of needs and confidence in choosing a course of action that will meet those needs. Sharing the common experience of anxiety also allows for a more real connection between parents and children. When children know they are not the only ones feeling anxious, and that it is normal, they will be more confident about proceeding to achieve their goals despite any anxiety that they feel.