Since she was 10 years old, Sophie Riegel felt like something was off. “My friends all seemed so carefree. And I had the weight of the world holding me down.”
Riegel writes these words in her beautiful, invaluable new book, Don’t Tell Me to Relax: One Teens’ Journey to Survive Anxiety (And How You Can Too).
As a parent, you also think that something is off with your teen. They haven’t said anything, but you can feel the difference in their demeanor or behavior.
Maybe your teen has become more avoidant, and refuses to participate in activities they usually enjoy. Maybe they’re having stomach pain, nausea, headaches and/or heart palpitations, which aren’t related to a medical issue. According to OCD and anxiety specialist Natasha Daniels, LCSW, these could be signs that your teen is struggling with anxiety.*
Maybe your teen has told you directly that they’re struggling. Either way, you’re not sure what to do. These tips can help.
Don’t be dismissive. When trying to support your teen, you might unwittingly minimize and dismiss their struggles, which can create distance and disconnection.
“When we as parents try to normalize a teen’s anxiety, they may get the message that we don’t understand. This can shut down any further openness about their true struggles,” said Daniels, author of Anxiety Sucks: A Teen Survival Guide.
In Don’t Tell Me to Relax, Riegel (and her mom) share examples of what not to say to your teen:
- “Maybe this is just a phase.”
- “Just smile” (“This is the equivalent of telling someone who just got shot to put on a bandage.”)
- “In a few days, you won’t even remember this.”
- “You always get over this. You are fine.”
- “You just need to get out more. Maybe if you exercise more, you will feel better.”
- “You are overreacting.”
- “Do you know how bad you make me feel when you won’t talk to me?”
- “There is nothing to worry about.”
- “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Daniels stressed the importance of validating your teen’s experience and empathizing with how hard it must be. Below are examples of what is helpful to say from Riegel’s book:
- “Is there something that I am doing that is contributing to your feeling this way?” (“This is a great alternative to ‘What am I doing wrong? I didn’t raise you to be mentally ill,’ or ‘Why are you so screwed up? Was it something I did?’”)
- “I’m here for you.”
- “I don’t understand what you are going through, but I would love to hear how you are feeling. Maybe we could learn about this together.”
Empower your teen to problem solve. Perspective is key in helping teens reduce their anxiety (and knowing how to problem solve is a critical lifelong skill). But “instead of telling your teen why they should think differently, ask them questions like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ and ‘If that happened what could you do?’” said Daniels. She noted that this is important to do when your child isn’t in a state of panic.
Share valuable resources. Let your teen know that there are many ways to effectively navigate and reduce their anxiety. This includes seeing a therapist, attending group therapy, taking online courses and reading books about anxiety, Daniels said.
In addition to Anxiety Sucks, she recommended Lisa Schab’s The Anxiety Workbook for Teens. Daniels offers an online class for teens (and adults) with social anxiety called Crush Social Anxiety. She noted that CBT School by Kimberley Quinlan also is a great resource.
Involve your teen in the decision-making process. “If you make all the decisions for [your teen] or force them to seek help, they’ll be closed off and resentful,” Daniels said. “And even the best therapist will have a hard time making progress with an angry teen.”
A better approach, she said, is to tell your teen that it’s critical to “build their skills and get help in some capacity.” Then “offer them several books, several classes and several therapists and have them choose which will work best for them.”
Today, Riegel is a high school senior. She still experiences anxiety before taking a test, speaking and doing interviews, but it’s not as debilitating. Her panic attacks also have decreased.
When her anxiety is at its peak, she can’t feel her legs, and therefore can’t walk. She feels like she’s “in a fog,” and her “mind goes blank.” Her hands “go numb,” and her “tongue feels like it’s swelling,” which makes her slur her words. However, the difference is that now she knows what to do.
Riegel has “an amazing support system,” which includes her parents and twin brother. She attends therapy several times a month. She takes medication and regularly checks in with her psychiatrist. She works out, and cares for her rescue dog, Nash—which has been especially transformative.
“Getting Nash changed my life. Having her near me keeps me grounded. [Caring for her] is a responsibility that I take very seriously and makes me realize that my worries aren’t my biggest priority. Nash and I walk together when I feel anxious. She cuddles up next to me when I panic, reminding me that I am not alone. Nash doesn’t let me ruminate or obsess, as she is always distracting me with her needs.”
When Riegel was in middle school, she gave a presentation about OCD to her class because she wanted mental illness to be taken seriously. “But it only made things worse. I was still bullied, and my mental health started to deteriorate.”
However, years later, a fellow student reached out to Riegel to tell her that because of that presentation, she started going to therapy. This helped Riegel realize that being open about her mental illness could help others feel less alone and seek help, which inspired her to write her book.
“I am living, breathing proof that it is possible to have an anxiety disorder and be successful,” Riegel said. “I am successful not despite having a mental illness, but because of it.”
Riegel uses her anxiety as fuel to accomplish her goals. She’s a straight-A student, All-American athlete, and the president of the board of directors of Here.Now., a Jewish mental health advocacy organization. She’s attending Duke University in the fall.
Riegel said that her anxiety has made her a much better listener and friend. She’s learned what helps her when she’s feeling anxious, and she tries to do the same for others.
Riegel understands that her anxiety doesn’t define her, but “it is important. Without my mental illness, I wouldn’t be who I am today. If I could go back in time and prevent my mental illness, I wouldn’t.”
Help your teen learn to manage their anxiety and channel it. Teach them to empower themselves. They’ll be better for it.
*These are other signs of anxiety in teens.