Five Questions to Ask Your Teenager About His or Her Anxiety
“My son/daughter has terrible anxiety and I don’t know how to help them. Do you have any advice?”
I’ve had so many conversations and emails like this in recent years, and they’ve probably doubled in frequency during the past six months of pandemic lockdowns and quarantines.
All the research confirms that teen anxiety is soaring to epidemic levels, causing lots of anxious parents too. We’re anxious about our kids’ anxiety. We’re worried about saying the wrong thing and making matters worse. We’re afraid of what we might find out if we ask them what’s going on. And we’re already so stressed out ourselves, we’re scared about finding the time and emotional energy to get involved.
How do we overcome our fears so that we can help our kids overcome their fears? The answer is questions. Questions are the best way we can begin to help our kids. We can’t give the right answers unless we first ask the right questions. But if we ask the right questions, in the right way, at the right time, then we can help our teens (and ourselves) toward peace and joy again.
ASK QUESTIONS AT THE RIGHT TIME
The hope of getting thorough answers to our questions depends on when we ask them. If we ask at the wrong time or in the wrong place, we’ll get wrong answers or no answers.
Ideally, we want to ask our teen questions in a quiet time rather than a busy time. During the school week is usually a bad time to probe because our kids are busy, stressed, and short on time as it is. We’re more likely to get the brush-off or a defensive response if we try to inquire about their mental health just before an exam or last thing at night.
Weekends are usually a bit more relaxed and slower-paced. Teens are around the house a bit more, and there’s less pressure on time if our kids do decide to open up. Maybe go out for a walk with them or a ride in the car to some relaxing place. Such a time and place will hopefully drop their defenses and make them more likely to let you in.
A busy time will be a blocking time, but a relaxed time can be a revealing time.
“So, I’ve managed to get my teen alone and relaxed. We’re at the right pace and place. How do I start?”
ASK QUESTIONS IN THE RIGHT WAY
We have to ask our questions in the right spirit. The exact same question can be asked in different ways and produce very different responses. Think of all the ways we could ask this simple question: “Are you anxious?” It can be asked in an angry way, a condemning way, an anxious way, a joking way, or a concerned and loving way. How we ask will determine how our teens answer.
Therefore, when we ask our questions, we want to avoid communicating any spirit of judgment, condemnation, humiliation, or disappointment. Instead we want to project love, compassion, understanding, acceptance, helpfulness, and patience.
Condemnation closes conversation, but compassion continues conversation.
“So, it’s the right time and I’m in the right spirit. What should I ask?”
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Here are five simple questions to get our teens talking about their anxiety.
- Do you want to talk about it? We can begin by saying something like, “How are you doing?” Or “You don’t seem to be quite your usual self recently. Do you want to talk about it?” Or if they mention anxiety at all, we can ask if they want to say more about that.
In many ways, this is the most important question we could ask because getting many teens to talk about their anxiety is so difficult. It’s the first and biggest step towards healing. Talking teens are healing teens.
- What are you feeling/thinking? “What’s going through your mind when you get anxious? What does anxiety feel like for you? How does it affect your body? Your life?”
There’s something therapeutic about getting what’s inside of us outside of us, and talking does that. It puts the jumbled inner mess on the table, and we can begin to look at it more objectively. We might also help our teens begin to make connections between events and experiences, between thoughts and feelings, etc. Connecting cause and effect connects teens with understanding.
- Am I part of the problem? This is the hardest question to ask, but it shows our teens that we really care about them and that we are vulnerable and willing to admit our faults. A lot of teen anxiety is being caused by unrealistic parents imposing impossible expectations on their kids, especially when it comes to academics and sports.
- How can I help? Having admitted that we may be partly to blame, we want to ask our teens how we can change. “What can I do or stop doing to make things better?”
If we’re not to blame at all, we still want to help them by getting them help. “Would it help to see a doctor or a counselor? Would you like to talk to the youth pastor? What if we get a book or two about anxiety, and we can read and study them together?”
- Where is God in all of this? We want to bring God into the conversation as soon as possible. We want to find out if some of their anxiety may have a spiritual cause. “Are you feeling anxious about temptation or guilty about sin?” “How is your relationship with God?” “What are you asking God for?” may also reveal whether prayer is part of their life, so they can restart it if not. This begins to bring God into the picture and encourages our teens that God is concerned about our concerns.
Good questions highlight bad feelings and kindle the light of good feelings.
Ask the right questions in the right way at the right time to create the best environment for your anxious teen to speak and for you to get them help. Engaging with your anxious teenager in this way reflects the personal, tender, and incarnational love of God shown to us through Christ.
For additional help, please see: Only the Gospel Will Save Teenagers from Their Anxiety, Rooted Podcast: Dave Thomas on Adolescent Anxiety, Ask Alice: A Conversation wit Dr. Stacey Gilbert on Teenagers Struggling With Anxiety and Depression.
Please also see our resources page: Anxiety, Fear and Worry in Parenting.