Not long ago, I had the opportunity to meet with the experts Dr. Tim DiGiacomo, Rachel Morin, and Brittany Little of the Mountain Valley Treatment Center clinical team. We had a great conversation about the development and reduction of anxiety.
It’s no secret that we are going through a type of epidemic with mental health and particularly anxiety. Everyone is more anxious and on edge than they have been in the past and there is a heightened level of uncertainty in the environment. Teenagers are arguably experiencing the worst of it.
With anxiety at an all time high, it’s important to explore where it’s coming from. Dr. Tim Digacamo works specifically with teens, young adults, and adolescents treating anxiety and OCD. At his treatment center, he has found that anxiety can come from a teen’s environment or it can be in their genetics—meaning parents play a huge role in whether their children develop anxiety and how they manage through it.
Children Are More Likely to Have Anxiety if Their Parents Have It
Brittany explained, there are two sides when it comes to children and parents with anxiety. First, these mental illnesses can be passed down through genetics. Second, it can be a product of the environment, including how parents manage their own anxiety. This doesn’t mean teenagers are destined to have anxiety if their parents have it, but their chances increase so it’s important to know how to address it if it comes up.
How Can Parents Help Their Teens Work Through Anxiety?
When I was young and got a minor injury or even fell off a horse on the farm, grandpa would give a little chuckle, tell me I was okay, and ask me to get up and walk over to him.
Maybe grandpa could have had a little more empathy when something like this happened, but it taught me a valuable lesson: Falling down and failing is inevitable. It happens to everyone at some point, but how the parent reacts to their child failing or falling down can have a major impact on how they live their lives. How the parent reacts to their own missteps and failures also matters immensely.
If a parent runs to the child and makes a big deal out of a minor situation, the child is more likely to experience fear and regret and they are less likely to get up and try again. However, when the parent teaches the child to dust themselves off and try again, and models the same behavior in their own life, the fear surrounding the situation is less severe.
Reframe the Message
Brittany explained that when a child or teenager is experiencing anxiety, it’s important to reframe the message. Instead of giving in to the fear and uncertainty, replace the message with “You are strong, resilient, and capable.” This will help your child realize they can and will get through hard things.
On the other hand, it’s important as a parent to validate how your child feels when they are experiencing anxious thoughts and feelings. They can encourage them while holding space for the fact that they are going through something difficult.
Name the Anxiety
If you are a parent with anxiety, one great strategy is to be transparent with your child and let them know when you are having those feelings. If you are in a highly stressful situation and it starts to affect you and your child, you can simply say, “I’m feeling anxious.” This is a healthy way to lead the way and be transparent about your feelings and strategies. When you do, it gives your children a safe space to name their anxiety and get through it. It is important for parents to model healthy coping skills.
Talking about anxiety, naming it, regulating it, and learning coping skills takes practice and time. You don’t have to be perfect at it, but you can start by leaning into the situation and feeling while you figure it out. This will help your children do the same and give them the coping skills they need to get through their own anxiety.
Three Things Someone With an Anxious Child Should Know
At the end of our conversation, I asked each guest to share one thing they felt was important for parents of anxious children to know.
Rachel suggested reducing accommodation. It’s a normal reaction to try to save your child, but it’s important to reframe that and see their challenges as a way to grow instead. Again, you can validate and recognize that your child is going through something hard without taking that growth experience away from them.
Brittany said that parents should provide support wherever possible. Support is giving validation, not enabling. You can send the message that you have faith in your child’s ability to tolerate their feelings, which ultimately reduces accommodation.
Dr. Tim DiGiacomo explained that we need to communicate transparently when it comes to anxiety and mental health. This allows each family member to open up about what is frightening, work on the problem, and start to talk about things they haven’t talked about before. This opens up conversations and helps everyone grow together.
If you would like to hear more about this topic, listen to the Not By Chance Podcast. You can find this episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify along with other topics you might find interesting if you have a child who struggles with anxiety.