We’ve been talking a lot lately about anxiety...a really worthwhile topic considering that it is the #1 mental health concern facing our society. What about children and teens though? How does anxiety show up for them? In many ways, it looks the same as adults. But in other ways, especially for our youngest ones, it can look really different. Anxiety has the potential to affect every part of a young person’s life, including their physical health, emotional well-being, education, and social skill development. With kids, when we notice new or concerning behaviors, we often think of it as a “phase” or something that they will “grow out of”. However, with anxiety, it doesn’t just go away, but rather, patterns tend to become more deeply entrenched. Also, because anxiety looks different for kids, many are misdiagnosed as having ADHD, oppositional behaviors, or other behavioral concerns.
Most mental health concerns develop to some extent prior to age 25, and early identification and treatment makes a significant difference. Knowing what to look for is important!
Here are a few common signs of anxiety in kids and teens:
Of course, some degree of anxiety is normal, but you may want to consider reaching out for support if your child or teen’s anxiety is at the point where it is interfering with their day to day life (or that of your family) in a significant way.
While it may seem frightening, anxiety is highly treatable with the right support in place. As I teach my young clients, we first have to “Name It to Tame It”. Identifying anxiety for what it is, is the most important first step. Once this happens, you are empowered to take the needed steps to help your child or teen overcome their anxiety.
To close, I offer you a prayer written by Christie Thomas from the website Little Shoots, Deep Roots, based on Psalm 118:6-7, “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper.”
“Thank you God that you are with me. Help me not to be afraid. I know that my worries can’t hurt me because you are with me, and you are my helper. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
In our world today it seems like the concept of having anxiety has reached epic proportions. There are varying degrees of anxiety with some people experiencing anxiety occasionally in response to a stressful situation while others live with crippling anxiety that keeps them from their daily lives - and there is a whole spectrum in between. While we don’t all qualify for a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, we have all experienced anxiety to some degree in our existence as humans. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders have become the most common mental health disorder in America, affecting over 40 million Americans. With numbers like that it is very likely that we all know or even love someone who is struggling with anxiety if we are not struggling with it ourselves.
If you do not qualify for a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder or do not significantly struggle with anxiety it can be hard to understand what those who do are going through. You may be going through your day without a care in the world and suddenly receive a phone call from a loved one in complete panic mode. Sometimes the things that send people into a panic can be bewildering to someone who is not experiencing it. Your first impulse may be to say, “Calm down” or “It is not that bad” or “Just relax” or even “What is the matter with you? What are you so worried about?” While all these things may be true and logical, they are not helpful for the person who is experiencing them.
One thing to remember about anxiety is that it is not rational, and most of the time the person knows that what they are feeling is not rational but that does not change the fact that they are still feeling it. Trying to force someone who is not feeling rational to be rational doesn’t work. Instead try being supportive by saying things like, “I’m here for you”, “This is going to pass”, or simply allowing them to be without saying anything. When someone is worrying about something irrational you can remind them to breathe or ask them if they would like to go and do something with you to take their mind off of it. One of the best things that you can do is to ask in a more rational moment (not in the middle of peak anxiety) how you can be most helpful to them when they are in a peak moment of anxiety. Simply being there and offering a calm presence can help someone through very dark moments.
One thing to remember about loved ones with anxiety is that they really do care deeply or else they would not be anxious. You must care about something to be nervous about it or about losing it. Glennon Doyle says that, “anxiety is just love holding its breath”, meaning that someone with anxiety loves so deeply and intensely that the thought of losing that (which is a very real possibility at any moment) sends them into a panic. Anxiety is not always something to be working against. We can embrace our loved ones who struggle with it knowing that they care deeply and intensely even at their own expense.
A popular buzzword in mental health, and throughout many aspects of our society these days is mindfulness. Mindfulness is an umbrella term for different practices and techniques of deliberately focusing your attention on the present, and not letting yourself be distracted by overwhelming thoughts, sensations, or emotions. In other words, mindfulness helps clear the “noise” from your mind so that you can be intentional about thoughtfully responding to feelings or events that you are experiencing versus simply reacting to them. Mindfulness is characterized by the use of different techniques in which you pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and sensations in that moment — without judging yourself on whether they’re good or bad. Mindfulness is increasingly being used in different approaches to counseling and psychotherapy. It’s also showing up more often in schools and with employers as a tool to assist with stress reduction. When I first heard about mindfulness though, I really didn’t understand what it was all about, and felt pretty confused by it.
One of the things that I have heard quite a bit over the years from Christians about mindfulness is concern about its roots in Eastern traditions. People also tend to think that mindfulness is restricted to practices such as meditation or yoga. Folks have often wondered if and how these practices align with a Christian faith? These are important questions! Like many things, mindfulness can be approached in a completely self-serving way (Ex-“I just want to feel good, escape reality, etc”). More and more though, many Christians and faith-based counselors are using mindfulness in a Christ-integrated way. After all, Jesus himself modeled the importance of regularly spending time in solitude (“And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.” -Mark 1:35).
Mindfulness through a Christian lens is the awareness that God is always present. It’s up to us to be intentional to tune in and seek connection with Him though. We can do this in a number of ways: slowing down to notice the wonder of creation, the sounds of laughter or beautiful music; savoring the taste and smell of good food; noticing and appreciating how your body feels when it is well rested and relaxed; centering your thoughts through prayer; practicing gratitude throughout the day by acknowledging that all that we are given in each moment is from God.
When it comes to holy self-care and mental health, mindfulness practices can be another tool that God has provided for our healing and growth. It is up to you, of course, to decide if and how mindfulness fits with your faith. No matter what we name it, the important thing is to seek ways to create space in our lives to care for ourselves as God would have us to, which will allow us to hear Him speaking to us more clearly.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” -Romans 12:2
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” -Philippians 4:8
It can be so hard to know what to do when someone you love is going through a tough time. We all go through things, so you would think that we would all know just what to say, right? Yeah, but we don’t. Each person has different struggles, and what may be a severe challenge for one person may not be much of a struggle for someone else. Also, we all come with our own personalities, baggage, and God-given gifts making our experiences so different. Even if we are experiencing the same type of hardship we may go through it completely differently. This is okay and even good, but it also makes things harder when we try to help each other. Sometimes we have really good intentions in the things that we say, but they turn out to be unhelpful or even hurtful to someone who is raw with emotional pain. When we are in tender places, an ill-timed comment that may be given with the best of intentions can still cause intense pain. How can we help people when they are struggling like this?
The Bible has a lot to say about struggle. In John 16:33 Jesus says, “In this world you will have troubles.” (emphasis mine) We know that we will go through hard times, but what do we do when the people we love the most are going through things that we just cannot understand? How can we help them?
One person I love to look to for direction on hard times in Job. He had it pretty darn rough, and what he goes through with his friends is a perfect example of what to do and what not to do when someone you love is struggling. Job’s 3 friends first try to find a reason for everything happening to him, and the conclusion they come to is blame. In keeping with popular philosophy at that time they believed that Job must have done something wrong to deserve all this, and if he would just figure out the awful sin he was committing, then bad stuff would stop happening to him.
Blame is an easy trap to fall in because this gives us a degree of control in an uncontrollable situation. If we can be good enough, we will escape those bad things. Or, if the person we love can just figure out what is wrong and fix it then they don’t have to suffer anymore. It sounds pretty good and easy, but as we know, life does not really work that way. Job is adamant that he has not committed any sins, and getting this blame from his friends just makes him feel worse. Though I am sure his friends had the best intentions, they were not helpful to Job at all, and even made the situation more traumatic for him. When a loved one struggles it can be tempting to tell them exactly what you think they should do, but this is not always the best approach to the situation.
Here are some practical ways to help those who are struggling:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Laura Dempsey is a licensed social worker and therapist with nearly 20 years of experience counseling children and families.