I had a plan going into our weekly School-wide Reflections meeting before vacation, but as often happens when working with teens, my plans changed. Looking at their faces, tense bodies, and the general lack of attendance, I wondered what was going on. So, I asked. My students, as usual, surprised me with the depth and breadth of their answers.
“I’m worried about flying home because of the coronavirus.”
“I don’t want to talk about politics with my parents at family dinner.”
“I’m really worried about all the homework I have to finish before I go home this weekend.”
And on and on. Some concerns were personal, others were more about the state of the world. All of the concerns felt big to each student who shared what was on their mind.
Recent statistics indicate that about 20-30% of teens experience some kind of anxiety disorder. This is a huge percentage of the population, and is likely under-reported because people don’t always know the symptoms. So the question remains, why are teens experiencing anxiety at such high levels and what can we do about it?
Social Media and Anxiety
It’s no secret that teens use social media constantly. For many of them, it is difficult to separate their “real” social experiences from those they have online. Everything from the number of likes they get on a photo, to bullying, to having constant access to news stories can affect their mental health. Adults are also using their phones constantly - both for professional reasons and access to social media.
The connection between social media use, anxiety, and school performance is explored more thoroughly in this Psychology Today piece, which concludes “It’s fair to say that use of social media by young people is not just a consequence of their social anxieties, but causes additional anxieties and stresses that are all grist for the modern day anxiety epidemic.”
So how do we help teens moderate their social media use to encourage better mental health?
Three of the best tips we can give, which we follow at our school are these:
- Be a good role model: if you want your teen to put their phone away during dinner, make sure your phone is away. If you want them to go for a bike-ride instead of sitting in front of the computer, offer to go with them. While teens can act as though they don’t care about approval from adults, they are watching what we do, and it is much easier to set limits on their technology if you are imposing limits on your own use.
- Keep technology out of the bedroom, especially at night: this will improve sleep, prevent teens from spending hours of time online without supervision, and create a “safe space” for them when they want to get away from the pressure of social media.
- Help them review their privacy settings and connections: you can work with them to ensure they have safe boundaries online. Be knowledgeable about the apps they use, and help them protect themselves.
- Help them develop critical thinking skills: This means being able to check the veracity information as well as analyzing their own use of social media. For example, teach them how to identify reliable sources for information and be able to spot "fake news."
While it is not useful to take a completely negative tone around technology use, it is important to help teens realize the consequences of overuse and help create a healthy balance. For more tips on limiting screen time, click the button below.
Anxiety About Current Events
It is surprising for some people to hear how many teens are tuned into current events, but social media has made the news more accessible and constant for everyone. Teens feel the same anxiety many adults feel when they hear about wars, global warming, global pandemics, school shootings, or economic downturn.
Managing this kind of anxiety is difficult for anyone because these problems are much bigger than what one individual can handle. However, helping your teen (and maybe yourself) take some kind of action can help make them feel better. If they are worried about global warming, look up some ways you can cut down on your family's carbon footprint. If they are worried about coronavirus help them look up the recommendations from The CDC. If they are concerned about an economic downturn, help them set up a savings account or make a personal budget.
It is also important to encourage taking a break from the news when things start to feel overwhelming. Try to pick one time a day or week when you read and discuss the news as a family, and commit to not checking it throughout the day. If your teen has anxiety about current events, it can also be important not to watch or read the news before bed.
Students feel pressured to do well academically for different reasons than they used to. While many feel the pressure to get into a good college, there is the additional stress of the financial pressure of college and the ability to get a job after they graduate. Not only are they pressuring themselves to get good grades, many also feel the need to get internships or job experience to help them prepare for a very competitive job market.
One key way to help ease academic anxiety is to have an open conversation about expectations and reality. Many kids have the impression that their parents want them to go to an Ivy League college or earn straight A’s, when that might not be the case. It is important to know what expectations and goals your child has for themselves and make sure everyone is on the same page.
It is also important to listen to their concerns without judgement. For many adults it can be tempting to help “put things in perspective” for teens, but that can make them feel like you are dismissing their very real feelings. Phrases like “I’m here for you. What can I do to support you?” and “I know you are stressed. I am here to help you work through it” can help your teen feel heard and supported, while giving them an opening to problem solve or ask for help.
For more on school-related anxiety, check out this post.
General Anxiety Reduction Techniques
There are lots of ways to reduce anxiety on a regular basis, in addition to the ideas already covered. Here are some of our students’ favorites:
- Yoga or meditation: there have been so many studies on how yoga and meditation can improve mental health! Even just 5 minutes of deep breathing can help you think more clearly and reduce stress.
- Go outside: one of the best things about having 130 acres on the lake is that we can get out to the woods every day. When students are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, they often ask to go for a walk with a staff. Walking to your local park or making an effort to go on a hike on the weekend can reduce rumination, or negative thoughts.
- Make art: studies show that spending time making art, even if you’re not very skilled, can reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels!
This piece from Psychology Today also has some great suggestions on “training your brain” to reduce anxiety.
If your teen is experiencing high anxiety and having trouble sleeping, eating, attending school, or enjoying life, it is critical to seek professional help. While all of the above suggestions will help reduce typical anxiety, having a mental health professional as part of your teen’s support network is important if your child is experiencing more chronic and severe anxiety.
* This post was updated March 11, 2020 with more tips and specifics about the coronavirus.