“Today’s teenagers are working part-time jobs on top of full-time school and extracurricular activities—and we wonder why they’re cracking!”
By the time our children hit their teen years, we parents have earned pro status in dealing with their physical health. We know how to treat their colds and their road rashes, and we know the best parking spots at the ER if those video stunts should fail. But when it comes to our teen’s failing mental health, we can feel helpless.
“I am desperately reaching out to you for help for my 14-year-old daughter. She is suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. She is very afraid, and I don’t know how to help her.”
This was a heart-wrenching email I received from a parent who couldn’t bear to watch their teen suffer through panic attacks and crippling anxiety. The letter grieves me because I know firsthand the torment of anxiety.
Teens have more social and peer pressures today than ever before. Their schedules are unrealistic, free access to social media has turned bullying into an explosive issue, and with busy parents and broken homes, the support systems just aren’t there.
Anxiety and moments of panic are common in life. But when your child is missing school, is afraid to leave home, or is having chronic panic attacks, it is a warning sign that this is potentially a serious mental health issue. I am here to tell you that this is not hopeless. There is much that a parent can do to help their teenager get through this fearful season. Here are seven things you can do:
• Seek professional help. If your child had an injured leg, you would take them to see a physician. What your teen has right now is an injured mind. Your family doctor should be the first stop. He or she should be well trained to begin a mental health and wellness plan for your teen.
• Help them befriend their anxiety. “Mom, I’m having a heart attack!” Shortness of breath, chest pain, a pounding heart, a choking sensation, racing thoughts, and an impending feeling of doom are all symptoms of panic. To a teen suffering from a panic disorder, this can occur monthly, weekly or even daily. What maintains the cycle of panic is the fear of having another panic attack. Talk to your teen about accepting the sensations of panic. These physical symptoms are real but won’t harm them. When they fight to resist a panic attack, they are reinforcing the fear. The more they accept the sensations, the less intimidating the panic attacks become, and eventually the panic cycle breaks.
•Enforce good nutrition and exercise. A supercharged energy drink could bring on anxiety faster than a head-on collision. Caffeine consumption, sugar and starchy foods can all send the body into a heightened state of anxiety. The brain needs adequate nutrition to maintain its calm. Talk to your teen about the importance of good nutrition. The same goes for exercise. Any mental health professional will tell you that exercise is a must when treating anxiety. Empowering your teenager to make their physical health a priority will be a life-sustaining tool.
• Cut back on activities. Today’s teenagers are working part-time jobs on top of full-time school and extracurricular activities—and we wonder why they’re cracking! It’s too much. No basketball game or dance recital is worth their mental health. Reduce their load; they need the opportunity to refuel.
• Give them a social push. I trembled while having coffee with my best friend, and I am an extrovert by nature. So when my doctor told me that exercise and community were the two most effective treatments for depression and anxiety, I pushed myself to be with people. It’s important that you not let your teen shrink into isolation. This is their way of coping, but it’s not a healthy way to live. Encourage your teen to push through the anxiety and be with their favourite people.
•Teach them diligently about God’s love. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” (1 John 4:18a). This was the key to my complete restoration from anxiety. When we truly understand the love of God—how unconditional it is, how pleasing we are to Him, how much He desires our protection and our good—we can stand in the face of fear. Meditate on this Scripture with your child, talk about it, read about it, and study it together. This truth, when it sinks in, will send fear running.
• Teach them to pray. Right now your teen needs professional guidance, rest, nutrition and exercise, social interaction, the knowledge of God’s love—and lastly, prayer. Encouraging your teen to run to God when fears come will draw them into a very real relationship with Jesus. God cares, and He can release a peace that is unexplainable to those who ask. When your teen experiences firsthand the power of prayer, watch their spiritual, mental and physical health flourish.
Sarah E. Ball is a blogger, speaker and the author of the online series “Fearless in 21 Days” (http://virtuouswomanexposed.com/category/fearless-in-21-days).
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This article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of testimony.
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