Coping Skills for Anxious Times

A conversation about how to confront anxiety — not accommodate or avoid it

November 29, 2017
comic strip of a teen with yarn-like ball of thoughts and then teen and teacher knitting muddled thoughts together

Feelings of worry and anxiety are common in childhood and adolescence (and beyond), and they’re normal. But when they become excessive, intrusive, and disruptive, they can compromise a child’s ability to learn and to function at school. Left unaddressed, anxiety often leads to depression in young adulthood; it’s like the “feeder school for the university of depression,” says Lynn Lyons, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Concord, New Hampshire. “It just moves in that direction, and we’re really seeing teens struggling with both of those things today.”

Experts agree that anxiety is reaching near-epidemic levels among young people, with as many as one in eight children — and 25 percent of teens — contending with diagnosable anxiety disorders. Why? “There’s so much focus on ‘the culture’” as a cause for anxiety, Lyons says. “And I keep saying to all these adults, we’re the culture. The world has changed — there’s a real difference in the way that we talk about safety and danger, in the access to technology, and in the overwhelming amount of information that parents are getting, and that kids are getting too. The more you know about everything that can possibly happen, and the more pressure that you feel to live up to the expectations of everybody else, everywhere else, the more it just builds and builds in kids.”

As a child’s anxiety escalates, the ways in which parents and caregivers tend to respond — by reassuring their kids, calming them, and making special allowances so they can avoid difficult situations — actually reinforce negative patterns and solidify anxiety’s hold, Lyons says. She works with students, families, and educators to challenge and change these behavioral patterns — to find ways to help kids do their own problem solving, learn to take risks, and build resilience.

As Lyons envisions it, anxiety is “a cult leader,” one that that makes its own rules and then demands that everyone follow them. The solution is not to give the cult leader what it wants, but to teach children to manage or defy its demands.

Coping skills need to be taught, she says. “You cannot do what you don’t know how to do. If worry shows up and no one has given you, or the parents, or the teachers, any strategies to deal with that worry — strategies that aren’t about elimination or avoidance — then you aren’t going to get very far.”

An Anxiety Culture
  • Children may be the ones suffering from anxiety, but adults are fueling it — through constant reports of danger, intense academic pressure, and a pervasive "need to know now" mentality that stems from technology and social media.
  • Children will try to escape anxiety by avoiding what scares them. Adults need to teach them to cope and manage worry, not eliminate it from their lives.
  • Teachers and counselors who are helping anxious students should work in partnership with parents. Everyone should have shared terminology, coping mechanisms, and goals for the child.

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine

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We’re in a moment where anxiety is running rampant, spreading like an epidemic among adolescents. What can we do? In a series of pieces, we look at how to help teenagers face their fears, build resilience, and grapple with the pressure to achieve — on the road to college and beyond. Read more at What Do Anxious Teens Need?

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.