STRESS: WHEN YOUR TEEN SWEATS THE SMALL STUFF, THE BIG STUFF, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
“I just need everything to go perfect tonight.”
That was the concern of my son’s chemistry partner as she hurried through the lab, clearly distracted by the night’s upcoming orchestra performance. Knowing that her parents had invited close friends and extended family to the concert, she was adamant that her performance needed to be flawless. Not just good—but flawless. One simple mistake would mean total failure in her mind.
What’s wrong with wanting things to be perfect? And why should we apologize for desiring nice things and impeccable performances? Ilene Strauss Cohen, PhD, understands that feeling. “It’s that feeling you get when you expect things of yourself that you’d never expect from others,” she says in an article for Psychology Today. “It’s working yourself to exhaustion in hopes that you’ll feel whole, complete, worthy. It’s basing your self-worth on external accomplishments, feeling like you have something to prove all the time.”
Welcome, my friends, to the world of the modern teenager! This constant exposure to pressure, combined with a desire for perfection, is pervasive and contagious, and our kids are picking up on it at an alarming rate.
“Perfectionism lives and breathes in your fear of making a mistake. When you’re afraid of what might happen, you don’t always make the best possible choices,” says Cohen. At this time of life, when choices affect the course of young people’s future opportunities, a desire to perform their best and adapt to changes when necessary is a normal part of growing up. But, in some cases, this internal need to achieve perfection often has a paralyzing, anxiety-ridden effect.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found that anxiety disorder affects 30 percent of children and adolescents, but 80 percent of those affected never get help. With the exception of teenagers—who transform into these emotionally-charged, high-maintenance, snack-devouring, earbud-fashioned mounds of walking drama—you know your children better than anyone. So, it’s important to recognize any changes in appearance, social interactions, and habits. These could be signs of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is normal, but it sure doesn’t feel normal most days.
“Anxiety is a natural human reaction that involves mind and body. It serves an important basic survival function,” explain the experts at kidshealth.com. “Although these situations don’t actually threaten a person’s safety, they can cause someone to feel ‘threatened’ by potential embarrassment, worry about making a mistake, fitting in, stumbling over words, being accepted or rejected, or losing pride.” People also experience sweating, a nervous stomach, and a fast pulse. These are all normal physical signs.
But when a young person is constantly feeling anxious, she’ll become physically ill, preoccupied, distracted, and tense; she knows something isn’t right. “Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can come on suddenly, or they can build gradually and linger until a person begins to realize that something is wrong,” say experts. “Sometimes anxiety creates a sense of doom and foreboding that seems to come out of nowhere.” Often, we know how we feel, but we don’t know why we feel this way.
If you see signs of anxiety, what should you do?
Don’t punish the symptoms.
As frustrating as it feels to watch your teen snap at siblings or isolate him or herself from friends or social activities, don’t focus on the symptoms of anxiety. Instead, use those situations as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on. “Hey Johnny, you haven’t been yourself lately, and I know the ACT test is coming up soon. Can we talk about what’s going on?”
If your teen responds and decides to open up about his feelings, do a little mental happy dance in celebration of this rare event. Then, listen. Really listen with your full attention as he talks about what’s going on.
Don’t confront anxious feelings with logic.
At this stage, you’re not here to provide an immediate solution. Rather, you are merely a sounding board for him to express what has been building up in his head. Intense anxiety isn’t based on rational thinking. So telling a teen to just “get over it” or dismissing these feelings as a temporary phase doesn’t help.
“Anxiety is not a choice, and asking an anxiety sufferer to just calm down is like asking someone with a broken ankle to just stop having a broken bone,” says Donna Chambers. “Most people wouldn’t dream of encouraging someone with diabetes to just stop having high blood sugar, yet many people view mental health differently than physical ailments.” Instead, simply lend a listening ear and assure your child that you are here with your full support.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Sometimes, putting stressful things into perspective helps take away the power of those feelings. “I like to list all the things that I can still do today, tomorrow and this week—which, of course, is a lot of things—almost everything,” says Robert L. Leahy, PhD. “You will quickly learn that your life is unchanged even if this apparently upsetting event has occurred. It’s more a preference than a necessity.”
When we face situations where the outcome is beyond our control—which is often the case for teens who try out for a lead role in a play or apply to their top choice for college, for instance—we feel helpless. But author Amy Morin, LCSW, says that often the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as we feared. “There’s a good chance you’re stronger than you think,” says Morin. “Acknowledging that you can handle the worst-case scenario can help you put your energy into more productive exercises.”
Introduce coping tools early.
One of the best gifts we can share with our kids is the ability to cope with pressure and steer clear of the need for perfection. That means, as parents, we need to adjust our priorities as well. For example, “Teens need to learn that the process of learning is far more valuable than the grade on the top of the page,” says Katie Hurley, LCSW. “Talk to your teen about his/her preferred learning styles, what can be gained from mistakes and failures, and how to apply new knowledge to future situations.” Although parents are quick to share stories about past successes, it’s important your teenagers hear about your struggles too.
“Teens hear a lot about what they should do and what expectations they need to meet. It helps them to hear that their stress and anxiety is understandable, and that you remember that need to perform,” says Hurley. “Open and honest communication about the pitfalls of adolescence helps normalize the process and relieves teens of the pressure to succeed.” Sounds like good advice for Instagram-saturated parents as well.
By helping your teen recognize the signs of anxiety, they will develop important coping skills that can support them during the small stuff, the big stuff, and everything in between.