To many a frazzled Canadian parent, the days seem shorter and the expectations higher. Our teens have hopped on the racing treadmill, facing a bleak job market and doubling down on university degrees, juggling the insatiable, and intrusive, demands of social media. The result: Nearly 7 per cent of Canadian teens suffer from serious anxiety, with symptoms that cause them to miss school or avoid peers – and behind them is a whole cohort of stressed-out adolescents, trying to juggle all their obligations. (In a 2008, Statistics Canada study, four of 10 teenagers reported being under “constant pressure to accomplish accomplish more than they could handle.”) But if anxiety thrives in the conditions confronting the modern teen, there are some steps that parents can take. The good news is that mom and dad might feel the load lighten too.
1. Keep them busy (but bite your tongue): A common refrain of modern parenting is that young teens are being overscheduled. And while downtime is important, research suggests that it’s not the extracurricular activities themselves that are anxiety-inducing – in fact, pursuing a favourite hobby or sport by choice is mentally sustaining. What heightens stress are the achievement goals parents attach to the activities, says Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who conducted the study in 2006 with Grade 8 students, and replicated the same findings with older students last year. “It’s not the number of hours, it’s the pressure they feel” to be MVP or star of the school play, she says. What’s more, this pressure may spill over into their friendships: If you are being taught, even unconsciously, to see teammates, or co-stars, as rivals for the big scholarship, Luthar asks, how does that impact your relationships? “We have to to be hypervigilant about our kids being drawn into this [attitude of] ‘achieve more, and excel more at all costs,’” says Luthar, “The message in that is so overpowering, that parents need to work extra hard to show our kids the importance of kindness, connectedness and integrity.” That’s an easier endeavour when parents aren’t counting goals in the stands, or plotting the next résumé-building endeavour. “It’s about who’s calling the shots,” says Carl Honoré, author of The Slow Fix and the parenting book Under Pressure. His advice: Drop your teen at hockey practice and go relax over a latte.
2. Find your teen an “auntie”: Modern families are shrinking, more mobile and time-crunched – and that means teens, distancing themselves from parents, who might otherwise have spent time with adult relatives in the past, may turn to peers to fill the gap. But Steve Biddulph, an Australian psychologist and the author of the new book Raising Girls, says that girls, especially, who are more susceptible than boys to media messages about their appearance and sexuality, can benefit from time with an older woman, who can impart important life lessons that focus on character, not fashion sense. That person doesn’t need to be a relative. In Britain, Biddulph notes, there’s a trend of groups of moms intentionally creating relationships with each other’s daughters, to serve as a sounding board beyond their own moms. A wise auntie can pass on advice in a way a parent might not be able to, especially in the crucial early teen years. And they are also another adult to watch for warning signs when the stress of adolescence becomes more serious.
3. Encourage them to face their fears (even if they fail): “Life is the rough and the smooth; and part of the problem now is we just want the smooth,” says Honoré. “This is a Photoshop culture we live in. We want to edit out the bad stuff.” But teens need to understand that feeling anxious is a normal human reaction to stress – a physiological response designed to warn of danger, and, in healthy measure, improve performance and focus. Avoiding or postponing an activity, such as the dreaded science test, actually enhances anxiety the next time around. A key component of therapy for anxious teens (and adults) is forcing them outside their comfort zone. In one of her group sessions, Dr. Alexa Bagnell, a child psychiatrist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, directs her young patients to stand in front of the sign for the Halifax Public Gardens – and ask for directions to the public gardens. “People will laugh at them and they have to process that and realize the world didn’t end.” Missing school, says Bagnell, can be especially problematic – because teens become increasingly anxious about falling behind, or how their peers might be judging their absences. Better to encourage a nervous teen to prep for the stress-inducing event – practise party small talk for instance – than skip it altogether.
4. Sleep, eat, sweat and be merry: In adolescence, melatonin, the hormone in the brain that initiates sleep, is released later at night, so teenagers “are already fighting their biology” to get good rest, explains Bagnell. Add in the constant white noise of electronics, energy drinks and homework, and the average high-school student, who needs between nine and 10 hours of sleep, is only getting about seven hours. “Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to manage our emotions and make decisions, and increases our stress level.” A good night’s sleep, Bagnell says, in a dark room – along with eating well and exercising – is a proactive de-stresser, and it’s important for parents to monitor bedtime, including when their teen actually falls asleep. Research also shows that students who get good rest before a test perform better overall than those who cut into their mental rest with a few more hours of cramming.
5. Tune out the (media and Internet) message: This week, a new Ipsos Reid survey found that 84 per cent of Canadian families feel technology keeps them better connected. But teenagers may be too connected. Another online Ipsos Reid survey last year found that 21 per cent of Canadian teens between the ages of 12 and 17 had witnessed someone they knew being bullied through a social-networking site. Half reported a negative experience themselves, including an embarrassing photo or someone hacking their site and pretending to be them. What’s more, teenagers, and girls in particular, are inundated with media that set an impossible standard for beauty and success. Biddulph says that, particularly in the early teens when social time on the Internet increases, parents need to monitor their child’s activity, discuss the ethics of social behaviour online, and educate them about marketing tricks such as airbrushing.
6. Reduce your own anxiety: Anxious parents are more likely to pass on the trait to their kids, both genetically and with their own behaviour – a link supported in a study published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center last fall. “You can only help your kids if you are significantly less anxious than they are,” says Biddulph. Positive mental health develops when active and even stressful periods are followed by an opportunity to relax. Make sure your teen has a quiet space to escape, and spend time as a family that isn’t goal oriented – a weekend meal, for instance, minus the scheduling flowcharts. “Ideally, your home should be a haven because the outside world has gotten faster, and probably nastier,” says Biddulph.