Helping children and teens cope with anxiety
By Sue Baldani
People who have experienced anxiety and anxiety attacks know how debilitating and frightening these issues can be. While they’re very difficult for even the most capable adult to manage, children and adolescents have an even harder time understanding these feelings. Talking to friends and parents can help, of course, but most times a professional is needed to actively listen to and teach kids coping mechanisms.
“The actual definition of mental health is how we address challenges in our lives,” says Dr. Joseph Mifsud, a local doctor of clinical psychology. “Mental health is also about communication, establishing healthy relationships, and developing strong coping skills.”
Especially over the last couple of years, challenges have been monumental. “We’re now having a big wave of people who hit a fight or flight response at the beginning of the pandemic and never really came down from that state of hypervigilance,” says Megan Gunnell, a Grosse Pointe psychotherapist and the founder and director of Thriving Well Institute and Thrive Advantage Group. “We all faced a tremendous amount of the two biggest factors that make anxiety spike – feeling trapped and feeling uncertain.”
So, how can parents tell if their children or teenagers are having trouble coping? “Parents need to be vigilant for any type of change in mood and things like withdrawing from social or family settings and isolating themselves,” says Joseph. “Feelings of anxiety can lead to people feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, and powerless.”
Adds Megan, “They don’t want to do the things they used to do or they may have a loss of interest in pleasurable things. You should also look for changes in sleep or appetite. I always tell parents, ‘You have good instincts. Trust your intuition because if you’re feeling like something is off and your child is just not acting like themselves, then there is a need for more support.’”
Parents can find support with a therapist who specializes in child and adolescent anxiety. “Teenagers might not have the most comfortability talking with parents about some of the things they’re going through,” says Kayla Pacic, a licensed professional counselor with Hope, Healing, and Health in St. Claire Shores. “Parents being able to direct them to a mental health professional can be very important in helping treat depression, anxiety, and other life stressors they may be going through.”
It’s critical, explains Megan, that people feel seen and heard. “That alone is powerful because when you’re struggling with something that is really burdensome to you, it feels very isolating because you think you’re abnormal.”
First and foremost, she says, is to have a safe, nonjudgmental place to share thoughts and feelings. “That’s super important and also very healing in and of itself. Then, it’s all about solutions. We want to give people a ton of tools that can help with managing anxiety.”
When someone has an anxiety attack, others may tell them to just relax, but it’s not that simple. “When the sympathetic nervous system is activated with anxiety, the heart rate increases, then our stress hormones are released and the fight or flight response can also be triggered as well,” says Joseph. “My first goal when working with someone with anxiety is to teach mindfulness – the practice of being present, plus mindful breathing – taking nice deep breathes through your nose and exhaling through your mouth,”
Another way to reduce stress and anxiety is for kids and teens to have some down time to refresh their minds and bodies. “It’s important for parents to review their kids’ schedules,” says Kayla. “A lot of teens I work with are under a lot of pressure. There are the demands of school, sports, home and possibly work. Parents can help their teens reevaluate their schedules and assist with time management techniques so they’re not feeling so overextended.”
Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of therapists right now, says Megan. “I’ve never, ever in my whole history of being a therapist have seen a demand like this, so it takes a little bit of patience and a lot of Googling, but there are sites that are good, like Psychology Today or TherapyDen. Those are really well vetted.”
She advises getting referrals from other trusted partners as well, such as your child’s pediatrician or school counselor. Of course, you can also ask your insurance company to give you a list of people in your area who are trained in treating children and teenagers.
With the right help from professionals, a lot of love and support from their parents, and a little bit of time, children and teens can learn to overcome their anxiety and go on to live healthy and happy lives. And isn’t that every parent’s wish?
Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.