If you've ever experienced anxiety, or if you have an anxious teen, you know how debilitating it can be. For what seems to be no reason at all (to the outside world), panic attacks hit hard and fast. For a while, I didn't want to write about mental health on my blog because I was afraid those who don't understand it would be judgmental. But I thought about it for a while and realized I wrote LOTS of posts with no fear of judgment so this shouldn't be any different. Many teens deal with anxiety and it's not something they should be ashamed of talking about or reading about. This post was written with the help of my own anxious teen, and her friend who has also dealt with anxiety.
9 Alternatives to Saying “Calm Down” to Your Anxious Teen
Put 100 anxious teens together in a room and you'll learn 100 different phrases that calm them, as well as set them off or make them shut down. These phrases are not 100% perfect for every single teen with anxiety, but I've found they work well for us.
“Tell me about it.”
Instead of “let's talk about it” (which can shut a teen down if they don't want to talk), “tell me about it” is a phrase that leaves the door open. You aren't forcing them to talk, you're just letting them know they can and you're listening.
Letting your anxious teen know you're listening is the first step in opening the door to conversation. They might not talk right now, but they know you're there and listening when *they* are ready. Just like “tell me about it”, “I'm listening” provides that open door that your anxious teen needs.
“That sounds tough.”
This one is kind of my go to when speaking with my kids. When Jenelle came home freaking out about her teacher “hating” her, and listed all of these examples, I said “that sounds really tough”. She took a deep breath and kept spilling her guts, so I guess it worked at least a little bit.
“I totally get it.”
I used to say “I understand”, until I realized how annoying it was when others did it to me. No, they didn't understand. HOW could they understand? They couldn't! Saying “I totally get it” is saying “I understand”, but in a lightened up way. Especially with teens, it's important to break the ice a bit before they get too tense.
“Let's breathe together.”
Anxiety can make you feel like you're drowning. When Jenelle is anxious, I always say “just breathe”. I could tell it annoyed her, so I started changing it up. “Let's breathe together. Okay. Woosah. What happened?” Sometimes she can't even tell me what happened because it was nothing and everything all at once. The important part is that she's breathing. :)
An alternative to “let's breathe” is “let's do something”! Take their mind off of the anxiety by doing something together. We love bullet journaling, for example. If you're looking for ideas, go through this list of mother daughter activities to get you started.
“1 to 10 scale, how horrible is it?”
Assess the situation and see if it's okay to lighten the mood. If it is, proceed. :) “On a scale of 1 to 10, how absolutely terrifyingly horribly awful is it?” Over exaggerating every word and using the same word over and over but in different ways makes my anxious teen crack up every time! She will then realize it's probably not THAT bad, and we can move on to another conversation starter like “let's breathe”. She knows I deal with anxiety as well so it doesn't upset her that I am over the top about it. However, if your teen is sensitive, tread with caution.
“What's the worst that could happen?”
Similar to the 1 to 10 scale, I over exaggerate this one as well. “What's the WORST thing in the whole entire universe that could happen right now?” Then, I make up all kinds of crazy funny scenarios or mimic ones from movies (she almost always catches on – especially if it's a Will Smith movie). This is not to make light of the situation, because anxiety can be extremely serious and dangerous. But in the moment, the best thing you can do is calm your anxious teen. If this works, celebrate it.
“Let me help.”
Though it can be a slippery slope (my teen has been known to use me as a security blanket at times), saying “let me help” has the power to literally wash all of their fears away. Such a simple phrase can be so powerful. I've watched the paralyzed fear leave my daughter's face and tears flow (from relief) when I say I'm here to help. Do I always know how to help? Hell no. I'd be lying if I said yes! I usually follow this up by, “Okay, so what's the first step?” and we problem solve together. I try to let her lead the way because I won't always be here to talk her down from anxiety.
“Wanna hold my hand?”
In the middle of all of it, when she's having a panic attack and there's not much anyone can do, I just offer my hand. Doesn't even have to be said. Just put your hand out and if they take it, let them. If they don't, you can leave it there as an open invitation. Depending on how old your anxious teen is and how close you guys are or aren't, this might seem a little weird at first LOL but it can help. Trust me.
Never say these things to your anxious teen!
Along the same lines as things you SHOULD say to your anxious teen, I feel it's important to talk about things you should NOT say to them. It's tough to tell what's okay and what's not okay to say, because every single human is different. With that being said, here are some general statements you shouldn't make to anyone with anxiety:
“You're fine.” – This may be true, after the anxiety attack, but it's the last thing they need to hear right now.
“Stop overreacting.” – It's not overreacting when you feel like you're going to have a heart attack.
“It's not that big of a deal.” – With anxiety, it's ALWAYS that big of a deal.
“Get over it.” “Relax.” “Chill out.” – If only it was that easy…
“Just deal with it.” – Yeah, that's totally possible. Not.
“It's all in your head.” – Horrible thing to say to anyone!
“Calm down.” – Instantly puts them on the defensive.
Don't try to minimize their anxiety, simply let them speak about it… and listen. Sometimes as parents, especially as parents to teens (!!), we aren't as receptive as we could be. Taking a step back and learning to listen can help in most situations.
The bottom line: Anxiety Sucks!
Anxiety sucks. No matter what you do, sometimes it won't help. Don't smother. Take a step back and think about how you can help your anxious teen. You can't always help and your teen can't always see their way out of the black hole that is anxiety. In that case, all you can do is be there for them. Work on coping mechanisms and seek professional help if you are unable to help pull the out of the funk.