Between getting up before the sun even rises and just thinking about homework, all teenagers feel at least a tinge of anxiety when the school year begins. Overachievers might find themselves biting their cuticles. Underachievers might dread the teachers who will ridicule them for not trying. Social butterflies might obsess over a pimple, their hair, and their clothing. For all of them, there’s the general fear of ridicule or failure but often they fear both.
Sometimes they don’t even feel the anxiety until they’re actually walking through the hallway.
On the fourth day of school last week, a girl was walking through the hall to get to her next class. She was alone and minding her own business. Her hair was parted in the middle like most of the girls. Her head was down just enough to allow the hair to cloak her and then a boy stomped at her.
“You’re ugly. Get out of here!” he yelled as he lunged forward.
With students now staring at her, she kept walking, faster this time, not looking back at his friends laughing and patting him on the back.
Some students watched and some even shook their heads but no one said anything. They, too, kept walking, grateful that it wasn’t them.
You know she cried at some point. She might’ve had to choke back the tears until the end of the day or she cried in the bathroom if she wasn’t too scared to go there, but she hurt a lot.
And, that hurt lasts. Teenagers carry it around with them.
Support is Key
So, as parents and educators, what do you do when they experience this kind of pain? The worst thing we could do is to call attention to the incident, but we can care for the teenager by offering support in multiple ways.
- Open your eyes.
Teenagers will hide things from you so you need to keep your eyes open in more ways than one. When you pick them up from school or talk to them later in the day, make sure you look at their body language. If they’re always hanging their head or feeling sad, they probably need to talk even if they claim nothing’s wrong. If they lash out at you for no reason, they definitely need to talk. Give them some space, then approach them when they appear calmer.
- Make them talk.
This is often difficult given that they usually have mastered the art of hibernation, in their rooms, doors often locked in the name of privacy. You’ll have to entice them with food, excursions to their favorite places, and even ask them for help with anything from understanding how to use a new app or finding something you lost in the house. Experiment with their changing interests and get them talking. Don’t let them isolate themselves even more than they already may have done.
- Listen to them.
No matter how tempting it might be to tell them like it is, just listen. And, don’t respond with a fake remark about being positive when you know that you wouldn’t feel positive if you were in that situation. Sometimes you just need to say you’re so sorry for this and that you’re here to listen. Sometimes you need to offer a shoulder to cry on and ask if they want advice before you give it because it’s so easy to lose them if they think you’re not being genuine.
- Accept them.
Teenagers are looking for acceptance in more ways than one. When they see that a parent accepts them fully, especially their flaws, they will feel loved and hopeful. This works for bad behavior and bad grades alike. You haven’t seen love in their eyes until you’ve seen them look at you after you tell them the bad grade doesn’t matter or that the curse word hurled your way is forgotten.
- Be their Rock.
Yes, another word for this is patience. You will need to be patient. Another way of putting this is to say that you need to be their rock. You have to stay steady and be there to cushion their fall. They will fall time and time again and you will need to help them up, brush them off, then send them off… again.
Logically, this all makes sense and you’re probably even patting yourself on the back for already practicing the majority of these suggestions. However, you must think longterm. It’s exhausting to care for children in general and it’s a different exhausting to care for a teen. Much of the time, both parents are working and often enough there’s more than one child to deal within the household. So, your persistence and resilience come into play when considering how to handle your relationship with your child.
Bottom line, if you relentlessly follow these five points, teenagers will feel safe and loved enough to eventually find a glimmer of hope even when their anxiety feels unbearable. That girl had to go to school the next day no matter how painful it was. Knowing that she was loved would make it somewhat easier. And, how did she know she was loved? At least one parent or guardian followed through with some or all of the above–over and over again.
If you feel that any situation or problem isn’t improving no matter how hard you try, it’s very important to seek help. Depending on the severity of the situation, contact the school counselor, the school administration, and/or any authority who may be able to help. All of us have been teenagers and all of us have experienced difficulties, so no one should ever be afraid to seek help, especially a parent experiencing hardship with a child.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Nationally Certified School Psychologist Izzy Kalman