Anxious teens are different from anxious children. Young kids worry about external things like monsters and the dark. (Remember when you had to leave the light on for your toddler to fall asleep?) Teens, on the other hand, worry more about themselves: their performance in school or sports, the changes in their bodies, and how they are perceived by others.
Perfectionism is a real thing for many teens. And, unfortunately, so is social anxiety disorder, or “social phobia”. Many teens are obsessed with wanting to be liked by, and popular with, their peers. They’re also worried about not looking stupid, ugly, or incompetent around them.
The Sensitive (and Susceptible!) Adolescent Brain
All this social pressure is taking its toll on our kids: They’re driven to get the best grades, score the most goals, and look a certain way. And it never stops, thanks in part to social media. According to the Surgeon General’s recently-issued advisory, nearly 95% of youth ages 13-17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media constantly. Yikes!
While the Surgeon General lists the benefits of social media for some children, he warns about its “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” especially since “adolescents, ages 10-19, are undergoing a highly sensitive period of brain development”.
In early adolescence, when identities and sense of self-worth are forming, brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions, and peer comparison, adds the Surgeon General.
Coping Mechanisms That DON’T Work
In order to cope, some anxious teens might self-medicate with recreational drugs, like marijuana, to deal with their social discomfort. While this may offer some short-term relief–numbing their stress and anxiety–it doesn’t work long-term, especially if a teen becomes dependent on this self-medication.
Other teens use their mobile devices to escape. If a social situation gets uncomfortable, they can look down at their phones to avoid awkward moments and jump into a virtual world instead of engaging with their peers in the real world. This, like alcohol or drugs, is just a temporary antidote to their anxiety.
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Depression
It’s common for teens to find that they are depressed as well as anxious. Why? Because an anxious lifestyle can be so limiting and so distressing. The link between anxiety and depression is strong. If a teen can’t believe in themselves and they live defensively for most of their waking hours, they’re more at risk for depression and might need professional help.
Ways That Parents Can Help
So, what can you do to help your anxious teen? You can help your child discover healthy coping mechanisms and make sure they eat well and get enough sleep. If you’re worried about your child’s safety and well-being, it’s important to seek professional help.
If social media and excessive attachment to their phone is an issue for your child, the Surgeon General suggests parents do the following to protect and support their teen:
Create a family media plan. Agreed-upon expectations can help establish healthy technology boundaries at home.
Create tech-free zones and encourage children to foster in-person friendships. Consider restricting the use of electronic devices at mealtimes, bedtime, and throughout the night, and at in-person gatherings and conversations. Help your child develop social skills and nurture their in-person relationships by encouraging unstructured and offline connections with others.
Model responsible social media behavior. Parents can set a good example of what responsible and healthy social media use looks like by limiting their own use.
Teach kids about technology and empower them to be responsible online participants at the appropriate age. Have conversations with your child about who they are connecting with, their privacy settings, their online experiences, and how they are spending their time online. Empower and encourage them to seek help should they need it.
Report cyberbullying and online abuse and exploitation. Talk to your child about their reporting options, and provide support without judgment. You or your child can report cyberbullying to the school and/or the online platform, or your local law enforcement.
Work with other parents to help establish shared norms and practices and to support programs and policies around healthy social media use. Such norms and practices among parents facilitate collective action and can make it easier to set and implement boundaries on social media use for children.