Joanna Fortune: ‘Don’t minimise or try to fix a child’s anxiety. It doesn’t work’

Anxiety is so pervasive among teenagers that adolescence can become an age of anxiety

Issues relating to anxiety made up most of the clinical queries I received in 2020. Of course, we must consider this through the lens of Covid-19 and the potential impact of growing up during a pandemic. For example, very young children, those under seven years old, turn to parents and siblings as their important hub of social development whereas for children in the tween and teenage stages of development, their peer groups form that hub.

This older age group are, developmentally, strengthening their social/emotional skills; deepening their belief formation; and expanding their understanding of themselves through how they perceive others think and feel about them. This is why their peer group is so important to them and also why being denied opportunity for this type of social engagement at what is peak brain development is, dependent on how long this situation persists of course, likely to affect their social, emotional and mental wellbeing.

I receive a high level of queries about anxious children and teenagers from parents outside of the Covid-19 context too. At times it can feel like anxiety is so pervasive among teenagers that adolescence itself is an age of anxiety. I have been asked by many parents if this means that anxiety is a “normal” part of adolescence and my answer is both yes and no because it very much depends on the context and how intermittent/pervasive it is in their lives.

It is normal for all adolescents to feel some degree of anxiety and even waves of recurring anxious feelings throughout their adolescence, though such developmental anxiety peaks in early-mid adolescence usually (13-16 years old). This type of anxiety tends to centre on the physical and emotional shifts that are occurring in their brain and body.

Problematic anxiety is not context specific and often the person is anxious without really understanding what it is they are anxious about

Whether anxiety is in the normal range of adolescent development or is something more problematic depends on the source and intensity of the anxiety in question. Normal anxiety is intermittent and context specific, whereas problematic anxiety is pervasive, constant and impacts on all aspects of the person’s day-to-day life.

Problematic anxiety is not context specific and often the person is anxious without really understanding what it is they are anxious about. Problematic anxiety needs prompt and specialised attention, consultation and treatment and you should consult your GP as soon as you are aware of it.

A more mild level of anxiety is something that most of us have experienced to varying degrees and at various times in our lives. You know the feeling. It is a feeling of emotional agitation and restlessness. You feel edgy and hyper-vigilant in watching for signs that you are right to feel the way that you do. It is similar for your teenager experiencing this type of anxiety. They may well experience a range of physical symptoms, including sweaty palms, nausea, headaches, chest tightness, rapid heart rate, twitchy legs or arms, disruption to gastric functioning. They may also display overt behavioural symptoms such as sudden school avoidance, retreating to a bedroom (more than usual), disrupted sleep and emotional irritability.

While I say that we have all experienced some degree of this at some point in our lives, I do not say so to minimise the experience in any way. It is an awful state to find ourselves in.

You can feel anxious in response to new and unfamiliar experiences. Hence it is so prevalent in adolescence when teenagers are flooded with first time experiences. First time in a new school, first time learning subjects, making new friends, trying out new things, first relationships/heartbreak and taking on new subjects can all illicit anxiety-based responses. This type of anxiety, while unpleasant, is not harmful to our mental health. However, it is deeply beneficial if your teenager knows that they can speak openly to you about all of this and be met with your acceptance and empathy as you sit with them in their feeling and support them in finding their way out of it with fresh thinking and new perspective on the situation.

Do not seek to minimise, dismiss or fix the issue for them. It doesn’t work and actually serves to increase the anxiety for the teenager.

15-minute play to soothe an anxious body and mind

Ensure tweens and teenagers with anxiety have some quick and easy techniques that they can do for or by themselves should they feel anxious when in school or apart from you. These playful techniques involve breathing and deep pressure input into muscles and joints, which is calming.

Toilet roll blow: Take a square of toilet roll and hold it to the back of a door or a wall with your index finger. Your child stands in front of it, takes a breath and as they exhale they lift their index finger to see how long they can hold the toilet roll against the surface using their breath. Repeat three times.

Puffer fish: Fill your cheeks with air so that they puff out as wide as you can get them and hold for count of five before a sharp release. Repeat this three times

Clam cuddle: Cross your arms in front of your body so that each hand is holding the opposite shoulder. Give a tight squeeze to the count of five and release. Repeat three times.

Starfish stretch: Standing up, spread your legs and reach up and out as wide as you can with your arms. Try to hold the stretch for a count of five and repeat the reach/release move three times.

Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting Series of books (See Throughout Health Month, she will be suggesting playful ways to connect with your children this year.