Behavioral Therapy Techniques For Teens With Anxiety You Can Try At Home

“I have never known anything more quietly loud than anxiety.”
-Rupi Kaur, Home Body

As the poet Rupi Kaur describes in her book of poems, anxiety can be terrifying for the person who has it. It’s so disturbing for many individuals who have it that the DSM-5, a psychology manual, mentions,

“Generalized anxiety disorder is associated with significant disability and distress [...]
Most non-institutionalized adults with the disorder are moderately to seriously disabled.
Generalized anxiety disorder accounts for 110 million disability days per annum in the
U.S. population” (225).

Anxiety can lead to significant distress and is even classified as a disability. In this article, we will provide some techniques from behavior modification therapy that you can use with your troubled teen. It will also provide some information on signs to look out for that might indicate that your teen might have anxiety.

Please remember, while this article provides some tools to help your troubled teen with anxiety, it can’t address anxiety itself. Anxiety should be treated and managed alongside fully-licensed mental health practitioners like those found at Liahona Treatment Center. At our therapeutic boarding school, we can help your teen with this mental illness.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When fears and worries are amplified

Before we talk about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), it’s important to remember that GAD is just one type of anxiety disorder. For example, here are some common anxiety disorders: social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia (fear of large crowds or open spaces), panic disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.

GAD is different from these disorders because a teenager with this disorder struggles with an overall feeling of excessive worry and fear. Additionally, unlike typical anxiety (or what a typical person might experience), the following symptoms must be experienced for at least six months for an individual to be diagnosed with GAD. For adults, an individual needs to experience three out of the six symptoms. A child needs only to have experienced one of these symptoms.

Symptoms associated with GAD:

  • Problems with sleeping
  • Easily irritated
  • Difficulty with focus
  • Being tired often
  • Feeling tense
  • Issues with muscle relaxation

In terms of what this might look like for your troubled teen girl or troubled teen boy, it can be attendance issues at school, continually talking about being stressed out and tired, or being unable to have fun because they’re always worried.

As the DSM mentions, because a teenager is in school, their primary source of anxiety might be related to academic or social performance. So, a teen might be an under or overachiever. For instance, some teens with GAD might avoid going to school because avoidance is one way that teens with GAD cope with anxiety. Likewise, they might turn to illicit substances to help them escape feelings of fear and worry since escapism is another way individuals cope with anxiety.

Likewise, your troubled teen with GAD might be an overachiever by constantly focusing on being perfect and getting the best grades. This can easily lead to burnout and more anxiety about their performance.

Behavioral Modification Therapy: Helping your teen move from survival mode to thriving

Behavioral modification therapy is a type of treatment that addresses maladaptive behavior. Your teen with anxiety would learn to move from survival mode to thriving. Before we talk about what that looks like in practice, let’s go over behavioral modification therapy.

Behavioral modification is based on the following ideas:

  • Every individual is raised in an environment where behaviors are learned. For instance, a child who sees their parents reading often learns that reading is an excellent way to relax. Whereas, a child who hears their parent yelling will learn that yelling is the only way or good way to get their point across.
  • Because behavior is learned, that means you can also change behavior. Behavioral modification therapists question ideas such as “she’s just like that and isn’t going to change” and “that’s his nature.”
  • Positive and negative reinforcements can change behaviors. For example, going back to the example of reading in front of your kids, if a parent rewards the child for reading with a “good job!,” they’ll learn that reading has its benefits beyond being “good for them.” They’ll learn to create a mental association between reading and positive things happening in their lives (a positive reinforcement). Likewise, if a sibling sees a child reading and constantly calls that child “a nerd” or tells them “reading is boring,” then the child will learn that reading can lead to social ostracization (a form of negative reinforcement).

A key part of behavioral modification therapy is recognizing that the environment is crucial to the types of behaviors a teen engages in. Another key part is identifying the nuances in how behaviors are reinforced.

Behavioral Therapy Techniques for teens with anxiety

As with ADHD, there are behavioral therapy techniques that can help your teen with anxiety. Here are some that you can try at home with your troubled teen.
Have an honest conversation with your teen about their fears
To help your teen with anxiety, you will need to have an honest conversation about their fears and worries. As an example, ask them questions like:

  • What are some of the things that you’re worried about?
  • What’s made you so worried about these things?
  • What are you currently doing that’s helping you manage these fears?
  • What are you currently doing that’s not helping you manage these fears?

The goal of getting them to talk about their fears is to desensitize them gradually. That is, being able to state things like, “I’m worried that I won’t get into college” or “I'm worried that I’m not good enough” can help them put their fears in words instead of your teen simply botting it up inside.

Have them list ways that they’re avoiding or escaping the things that they find anxiety-inducing

Many teens with anxiety might avoid things that cause them to feel anxious. For example, if your teen is worried about grades, they may avoid doing homework since not doing it can temporarily relieve them of their fears. They may also turn to escapism in the forms of using screens, illicit substances, or spending too much time alone or with friends.

As they list how they’re avoiding or escaping the things that they find anxiety-inducing, avoid passing judgment, or being critical. The goal isn’t to make your troubled teen more anxious; the goal is to help them become aware of maladaptive and unhelpful behaviors on their own. Keep in mind that your teen might already consider this process uncomfortable since they’ll need to recognize these behaviors as avoidant or a form of escapism.

Encourage your teen to expose themselves to their fears

One critical aspect of exposure therapy, which helps treat anxiety, is having individuals expose themselves to things that they are afraid of in a safe and supportive environment. For example, if your teen refuses to join school clubs or sports because they feel like they’re not good enough, try having them play out a mock scenario with you where you as a family act out the scene. Over time, encourage them to join the club or sport that they’re afraid of joining.

If your teen is very resistant and afraid, don’t punish them for being anxious. Punishing your child for being afraid or anxious reinforces the idea that bad things happen when they do something they’re scared of. Instead, reward them for trying or for even being open to having a conversation about their fears in the first place.

Teach your teen relaxation techniques

Simply reminding your teen that their breathing can help them relax when they start to feel tense or nervous. Teaching your child relaxation techniques like meditation, mindfulness, and exercise can help them remember that they’re ultimately safe. They don’t need to be worried about being in survival mode (which is what anxiety tells them).

Teaching your teen relaxation techniques can help them form a positive association with the things that they’re afraid of.

You’re there to help them, but you have limits

Ultimately, as you try these different techniques, your goal is to help your troubled teen understand that you’re there to help them. However, to truly help your teen, you will need to recognize your limits: you can only do so much.

Reach out to us at Liahona Treatment Center so that we can help you and your teen.

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