Cellphones: Cause or Symptom of Teen Anxiety? What You Can Do About It.

We know there is a rise in teen anxiety and suicide. Many blame an addiction to cell phone use as the cause. They cite that too much exposure to social media can cause a teen to feel envious, and inadequate; to feel rejected and left out, and even to suffer from cyber-bullying. While apps are now available that can help reduce cell phone use, this will not fully solve teen’s vulnerability to anxiety. That is because the reason teens are so anxious these days is that their lives are filled with fear and uncertainty. The excellent article by Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary is a good resource for any parent of a teenager. Another good resource is The film Eight Grade written and directed by Bo Burnham. It illustrates what being a reflective parent of a teenager can look like. In the film, the father gives his daughter just the kind of relationship backup that every child needs.

What teens see around them and ahead of them in adult life, is terrorism, street violence, school shootings, excessive competition for good grades and schools, high college debt, and insufficient employment opportunities for good paying jobs, just to name a few. No wonder so many are worried, or even hopeless about their lives and their futures. No wonder they want to escape into their phones!  The truth is that their parents are also frightened and anxious about the world their teens are facing. So, the natural parent instinct often is to jump in to protect and fix. However, parents must resist this temptation, because it will only handicap your child. Even by focusing so much on reducing phone use, parents may be missing the real message their child is trying to communicate. Your child needs you to listen to what is going on underneath all that cellphone use. They need you to step back and see the big picture, which is that the world terrifies them and that their addiction to their cell phones may be in large part their way of burrowing to escape their fears. If the focus remains simply on reduced cell phone use, while the underlying issues are not addressed, it will not only be very had to pull them away from their cell phones, it may even exacerbate their feelings of emptiness and helplessness. The good news is that although it may seem to you as if your teen is pulling away and doesn’t want much to do with you, it turns out your relationship with your teen plays an amazingly valuable role, a kind of safe harbor in the storm. Reflective Parenting provides all the relationship building tools you will need. Here is what your fearful uncertain child needs from you:  listening to them, empathizing with them, validating them, supporting them, accepting them, believing in them, and teaching them an adaptive coping mechanism for reducing their anxiety and boosting up their sense of hope.

Some ideas for teaching teens to cope with uncertainty and fear:
The general idea is to first validate their perspective, empathize with their feelings and let them know you believe in them and their ability to figure things out more on their own. Then after that, you can offer your ‘parenting wisdom.’ Giving your child the freedom to think for themselves and even to disagree with you, opens the space for them to also take in what you want them to know and learn.

Uncertainty is a big problem and it makes people anxious and self-doubting, sometimes even paralyzed. However, it is made worse when we don’t accept the fundamental uncertainties that life presents. We know that acceptance of the ambiguities and uncertainties of life serve to reduce stress.  In many respects the message should be uncertainty is a reality. By not accepting you reduce your resources for dealing with it. It is not a bad message for you as a parent to learn also. The reflective approach recommends first validate and empathize then offer wisdom.  For example, “I know that the fact that everything feels so uncertain, makes you feel hopeless about the future and even makes you feel kind of paralyzed from making choices about what you want to do.” Then you can say: “I know uncertainty sucks, but we all must learn some way to accept it. In fact, the more you accept it, the more energy you will have to deal with it.” Other possible things to say after you empathize and validate are: “The fact that you don’t know exactly how your choices will turn out, doesn’t mean you should give up on making choices. It’s good to decide what you want to do and work towards it, even though you can’t totally predict the outcome.” Give your teen plenty of room and support for expressing what choices they would make.  Give them the space to practice solving their problems during their time at home, so they can feel braver about their future away from home.  Have open-ended conversations and be honest about the dangers. Give your child the opportunity to express their views on the subject, including what they would do to solve it. And listen without judgment or contradicting them.

The point is if you want your child to build up the confidence to confront their fears and uncertainties, you must do the delicate balancing act of both supporting them in their opinions, ideas and their competence, while also offering your own with the angle of ‘I’m just being a parent’ or ‘That’s just my opinion’. Don’t try to force your child to agree with you. For example, teens are highly sensitive to what others think about them- especially about how they look, what they wear and whether or not they fit in socially.  You have to be honest about it and validating. “Yes, I agree with you. People can be very shallow and judgmental. I hate that too!” is one possible thing to say. Then you can follow it up with your ‘parenting wisdom’.  You might say, “I believe it’s best not to care so much about how others think. In my experience, looks and clothes end up not mattering that much to how well a person does in life. And those kids who seem so popular now, often turn out to not be so great later on. In fact, acting so superior often hides their true insecurity underneath.” Now here is what will enable the ‘medicine to go down’, so to speak. You must tread softly when trying to teach. A softener might be: “But those are just my ideas. I trust you will figure your own good ideas.”

Written by Regina Pally, Co-Director, CRC

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