The words were hard for the 13-year-old sitting across from me in the counseling room. “I want to, but I can’t” she said in practically a whisper. This academically gifted, brand new teenager found herself in the grip of anxiety unable to express herself to her family and friends. She couldn’t describe the feelings or any possible causes. She had no idea how to “make” herself say hello to a person passing by in the hall or respond to a teacher. The idea of a sleepover, a prom date, or a school field day was overwhelming.
For this student, the best way to address her fears was pencil and pen and this was what she had to say.
I open my mouth
But they don’t leave
Stuck in the darkness.
Begging to leave
But they can’t.
Unable to leave.
But they try.
A thousand words form.
But they cannot leave.
They press against the back of my throat
Like a scream.
Away from the chaos.
Nothing can hurt me here.
Not in the darkness.
The darkness is not where we want our adolescents to be. It takes some special care to work within the bounds of their fears, so as not to produce a fight, flight, or freeze response. Here are a few ways to help our teens deal with their anxiety:
- Identify the fear. Ask questions like, What is the thing you are most concerned about? If your teen is unable to answer this question, try asking them to tell you a story about what has happened to cause the fear. The benefit of asking teens what story they are telling themselves is that it can provide clarity on how they perceive their own actions and those of others. This will give you the chance to help realign any false assumptions and help them identify other plausible alternatives.
- Explore ways to “lean into” the benefits of the fear. Remind them: fear is not all bad. It can be a normal and healthy emotion. It helps us determine what's dangerous, and to formulate plans for avoiding danger.
- Point out previous situations in which your teen has moved past his or her anxiety. Acknowledge and praise the strength and resilience they showed in these situations, and look for opportunities to praise these traits in future situations.
Dawn Spragg is our Director of Therapeutic Services and a licensed counselor in the state of Arkansas, who specializes in adolescents. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org