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As teens experience anxiety about pandemic, school, their challenges, Operation Parent offers some advice

By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune health reporter

Adults are having trouble processing the changes COVID-19 continues to bring, and it’s even harder for teenagers who have enough anxiety already about returning to school

Operation Parent, a nonprofit based in LaGrange, offered a webinar in which Sharon Saline, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, talked about anxiety and ways for your teen can build resiliency.

Dr. Saline

“Anxiety is a natural human response . . .Our goal isn’t to dismiss it entirely but respond to it in ways that are healthy and manageable,” says Dr. Saline.

Experiencing anxiety is not unusual for teens. Being nervous and worried about a new situation is normal. Teens will typically retreat and look to parents or friends for help or validation. Worry goes away when they build confidence and have mastered the situation, says Dr. Saline.

The real problem is when the reaction is disproportionate to the event, when anxiety reflects all-or-nothing thinking, Dr. Saline says.

For example, there are two types of threats: real and perceived. A car speeding towards you is an example of a real threat, while the spider on the floor, next to you can hurt you, is an example of a perceived threat. But the body responds to both types the same way.

Teens need to be taught how to distinguish between these perceptions and identify the signals of the body, Dr. Saline says.

Anxiety is an overresponse to fear or worry. Worry gives way to turning “what if” into something believable.

“Life is impossible to live without feeling uncomfortable sometimes. We need to teach kids to manage those uncomfortable feelings,” Dr. Saline says.

It is best to teach teenagers how to reduce the frequency and intensity of anxiety, she says.

Dr. Saline advises parents to say they notice the teens’ anxieties. They should ask what the anxiety is trying to say.

One way to combat anxiety is to change thinking to curiosity, she says: “Say, ‘I wonder,’ instead of, ‘I worry.” She says anxiety shuts down, while curiosity opens possibilities and helps to rely on resilience.

Addressing anxiety about back-to-school begins with discussing what happened last spring. Dr. Saline says to talk about it, validate it, name it, acknowledge it, and empathize with all the related feelings. Talk about whatever emotions exist. Not ignoring them is important.

One idea to reduce anxieties is to create structure. Structure means creating two weekly schedules. One schedule is a learning plan for online school. Video class times, dates homework is due, screen time, and tutor or support time; anything involved in schooling. The second is a backup for when school reopens and is back to in-person learning. Having teens collaborate in making both schedules provides ownership.

Identifying goals is critical to establishing routines. Dr. Saline says it is best for the parent to listen, then share some ideas. Goals create a sense of expectation and should be based on the tasks they enjoy and are both easy and interesting to them.

It is good to build up strengths and challenges at the same time, but not in the same way. Making accommodations for tough classes and hybrid learning is fine, just do not give a pass. Needing different sets of expectations for challenging verses easier classes will work, if all the goals stay connected.

“We want to stop reassuring them because reassurance doesn’t provide a lasting solution and teaches your teens to rely on other people to make things okay,” says Dr. Saline. Short-term anxiety decreases but overall anxiety goes up. The teen begins to use the parent as a crutch instead of growing themselves.

Some positive mindsets for teens that we want to encourage are setting realistic goals and expectations for themselves. Acknowledge some of their challenges as areas for improvement rather than something that cannot be fixed or changed, she says.

Help them focus on what they have the power to change, not what they cannot control. This changes the focus from, ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I wonder what it would be like if I did this,’ Dr. Saline says. The goal is for the teen to rely on practical coping strategies that encourage growth. Nurture the teen to have a positive view of themselves that includes recognizing their strengths.

Building resilience means teaching kids to tolerate their discomfort and being able to recall and hold onto their successes.

Dr. Saline says to work toward solutions and hold your ground when they do not cooperate. It is a joint effort, parent and teen working together to build resilience and navigate through these challenging times and unknown situations to come.

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