Dear YFS –
After viewing the “Angst” movie on teen anxiety, I’m struck by how many Island adults, including my friends and I, model some of the pressures talked about in the film. This seems to be part of the Island culture, how do you fight that?
Dear RM –
I’m glad you were able to catch the film on teen anxiety. Anxiety is a challenge for many Mercer Island teens just as it is for to teens in other high achieving, affluent communities. However, parents truly can have a direct and positive impact on decreasing your child’s anxiety. At the same time, it can be difficult modeling behavior outside a community norm, especially in a small community like Mercer Island.
For Island youth, a sense of pressure, parental criticism and overly high expectations are some of the primary sources of anxiety. A full 57 percent of eighth graders, up to 70 percent of 12th graders report feeling nervous, anxious or on edge (2016 Healthy Youth Survey). As you think about your expression of concern and caring for your child’s academic, social and extracurricular success, take into consideration the following:
1. Stay connected to your teen even as they push for independence. Express unconditional love in ways they’ll accept – make their favorite snack, leave a coffee card with a note – whatever works for your child. Pay attention to your teen’s social and emotional well-being. Are they experiencing positive and mutually caring friendships, are they handling the emotional challenges of their teen years? A connection with a parent increases the likelihood a teen will share their distress or ask for help when needed.
2. Obtain mental or physical health services for your child if this is recommended by a school professional or if you sense anxiety is unmanageable. Don’t assume your child will outgrow anxiety, depression or social or friendship issues. When a child is dealing with this type of difficulty, he will not be able to keep up with other important developmental tasks.
3. Help your child enjoy a variety of interests and develop different skill sets. It can be tempting to focus on areas of a youth’s success for which they receive recognition. Equally important is paying attention to the development of internal assets such as empathy, perseverance, passion, patience and kindness. Though not as flashy as making an elite team, these internal traits are the internal building blocks of resilience and the foundation for future academic, social and work place success. Well-roundedness should be primary in your definition of success.
4. Develop family routines that include relaxing without alcohol and connecting outside of screen use. In an environment that is as driven and achievement oriented as Mercer Island, teach your child how to positively decompress after a challenging school week. Games, reading, hanging out, cooking or baking – family activities that allow both together time and time to be in each other’s presence while in individual activities. This will help your child develop the ability to de-stress without self-medicating with alcohol or a substance.
5. Help your child find a way to be meaningfully engaged in some aspect of his or her community. For some youth this might be boards, commissions, team leaders or student government. For other youth it might be volunteering at a bike repair shop. Even if the activity is not resume material, purposeful engagement is a protective factor in dealing with stress and critical to overall well-being and happiness.
And last, and most importantly, if you experience anxiety, find what you need to modify in your life. Whether spoken or unspoken, children pick up on parental anxieties. When you pay attention to this issue within yourself you send the message that all of us deserve to live free of consuming stress and worry.
The issue of anxiety among Mercer Island teens is an on-going conversation. Reducing the cultural norms related to teen anxiety will take a concerted effort on the part of parents and adults. Please join YFS and the Healthy Youth Initiative at the second community forum on Successful Parenting on Mercer Island coming April 3, 7-8:30 p.m., at the Mercer Island Event and Community Center. The forum will be a community conversation on Harmful Stress and its Impact on Teen Health and feature Mercer Island youth and a panel of professionals.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.