Health & Wellness


A faithful approach to teenage angst

By Cathi Douglas     9/17/2015

Any parent can tell you that anxiety is a troubling but common part of a teenager’s life. It may seem that your teen overreacts to seemingly inconsequential triggers, such as being asked to work an algebra problem in front of the class, but scientific evidence suggests that teens are more vulnerable to social anxiety and other emotional disorders.

Harvard researchers found that adolescent brains process information differently than adult brains. “Don’t assume that because you’ve laid out the argument or presented the idea that teenagers are interpreting it in the same way you’ve presented it,” advises Harvard neuropsychologist Deborah Todd-Yurgelun. “The frontal cortex is continuing to develop and if you don’t have the neural structure in place, the adolescent cannot really think things through at the same level as an adult.”

As a child matures, the prefrontal cortex of the brain increasingly assumes responsibility for many cognitive processes. This “frontalization” may inhibit teens’ ability to think outside themselves or see themselves accurately. Thus they can feel as if they are constantly on stage and being judged.

So how can parents understand their teens’ anxiety and find solutions in their Catholic faith?

James Sanders, a licensed family therapist with offices in Newport Beach and Rancho Santa Margarita, believes that parents must exhibit calm and reasonable perspectives. By tempering their responses, parents show teens that the mortification they feel over social mishaps is temporary.

“Staying relaxed in the face of what could be an emotionally reactive situation is important, or everyone starts acting like a 4-year-old,” Sanders says. “Teaching kids that people learn from their mistakes and others’ mistakes helps them understand that their embarrassment and self-consciousness will fade over time.”

As part of the body’s defense mechanism, anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response when danger is perceived. Parents can help their children combat anxiety with some simple approaches:

  • Acknowledge their fears rather than trying to talk them out of it.
  • Reassure them that in time they will be OK.
  • Don’t let them avoid fear completely. Instead, slowly introduce your child to whatever makes them nervous. Help children take safe risks by encouraging small steps.
  • Be encouraging and positive rather than yelling, and don’t let your child avoid anxious situations.
  • When a child is frightened, talk about it and help them master their fears.

Social media is particularly dangerous for teens, Sanders says, because it broadcasts everything to a wide audience – embarrassing pratfalls as well as personal victories. “In the past, things could happen within the family and be a private joke, no big deal. Now teens know that everyone knows, others tell, and it’s on the record forever.”

Perhaps the best way to help teens put things into proper perspective is for their parents to create an emotionally safe space where they feel comfortable expressing themselves, Sanders says. It helps teens to hear that their parents experienced teenage angst themselves and survived.

“Catholic means universal. That means we’re all in this together,” Sanders says. “We accept everyone and realize the goodness and beauty within us as God’s children.” Reassuring kids that they are already good enough and blessed with many gifts helps grow their self-esteem into adulthood.

It’s also important to remember, Sanders says, that teenagers are just beginning to differentiate who they are in the midst of hormonal changes and brain development. “If they feel misunderstood, they get really afraid of being defined by their mistakes.”