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What your teenager wants you to know about their anxiety

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What your Teenager wants you to know about their anxiety. (And what you can do.)

 

We have all felt anxious at different moments of our lives. Anxiety is an emotion that tells us that something is wrong. This emotion becomes a problem when it doesn’t turn off, staying with us for extended periods of time, especially when there doesn’t seem to be any outward cause for this feeling.

 

Your teenager may not say that they are anxious or that they are struggling with self-doubt and worry. In fact, they often look like this picture, smiling and outwardly appearing that they 'have it all together'.

 

Listen to Micah open-up about anxiety and his journey as a teenager.

 

“I think one of the biggest things for teens opening-up about their anxiety is coming to accept it first.  I feel like lots of teens, especially boys, try to say that they don’t have anxiety or doubts to seem more ‘macho’.  To add on to that, it’s like trying to send a message of they don’t need anybody else on their walk of life.  For me, anxiety comes in the form of doubt.   I don’t like messing up and every time I do it’s always like standing on a knife edge after that.  I don’t accept help and try to do a lot by myself because I feel like that will in turn make the best results.  At the end of the day, I think lots of teens don’t talk about their anxiety and open up to it because they think it will make themselves look less in other’s eyes.” Micah

 

I think even as adults we can relate to this idea of trying to appear that we have it all together. How many times have you heard of someone attempting suicide and those around them were surprised? We live lives of quiet desperation, as one poet wrote. 

 

“At the end of the day, I think lots of teens don’t talk about their anxiety and open up to it because they think it will make themselves look less in other’s eyes.”

 

The importance of building good habits now is to prevent these problems from getting bigger and progressing into mental health issues, physical illness, and even teen suicidal ideation or thoughts. Our journey forward starts with asking questions.

 

“For most kids, you’re not going to see suicidal ideation or suicide attempts,” said Kim Roaten, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “Instead, you're going to see withdrawing from friends or dropping grades or more argumentative at home, things like that. What we want, ideally, is to prevent the escalation.”

 

 

As a parent you have one unique role on this earth. To be a parent to your child.

 

 

There is one thing that you can do that your teenager is wanting. They are silently begging for this! While they may not say it, they really want you, their parent. They want you to ask them to spend time with you.

 

The important part of this statement is the ‘ask’. 

 

ask them to spend time with you

 

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Spending time together opens the door to questions. Asking your teen questions about what they are reading, learning, watching; and then listening actively. Repeating back what they are saying to make sure you understand. I do this a lot!

 

Questions that you should focus on are:

 

How are you doing?

Any cool youtube videos you’ve watched lately?

What is exciting you right now? What are you passionate about?

Are you into any new books? What are you reading?

 

Questions that you should avoid:

 

How are your grades?

 

There are other ways to get this information. It can be a sign of how your teenager is doing, not the thing that you should be focusing on. Let’s face it, when you were applying for a job did anyone care what your grades were in high school?

 

How was school? Did you learn anything?

 

There are better questions to ask about their day than this one. Try asking what was the most fun they had today? It was probably related to a social interaction that was positive.

 

Things to do with your teenager

 

Go for a walk or hike together.

Work on a project around the house together.

Go shopping together for meal planning, or for a house project.
Make a meal together.

Build a fire together.

Sit on their bed and ask open ended questions while you listen.

Go to places that they like.

Take them out of school for a morning or afternoon and play 'hooky'.

Follow a TV show together.

 

My dad would take one of his four children on what we called a 'sneak'. We would 'sneak' out of the house together and do something, just the two of us. To this day if you ask any of my sisters or brother they will smile when you mention this word, sneak. It was a time to be with our dad. It really didn't matter what we did but it was a powerful way for him to show his kids that he was 'for us' and available.

 

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How many hours do you think a teenager should sleep? 

 

The answer might surprise you. Teenagers need 9 to 10 hours, or more, of sleep each night. This is a sobering fact. As parents and we tend to treat our teenagers as younger adults. In truth, there is a lot of brain development occurring in teenagers, all the way into our middle twenties. One of the biggest roles in this brain development occurs during our sleep.

 

What are the costs if sleep is reduced?

 

Teenage sadness and hopelessness has continued to increase, as well as teen suicidal thoughts and attempts, each year. Every lost of hour sleep increases the risk of teen suicide, exponentially.

Substance use like drugs and alcohol go up as sleep time goes down.

Sleep loss raises stress levels, ramps up our 'fight or flight' or sympathetic nervous system, decreases the brain's ability to process emotional memories, and amplifies our brain's emotional centers, but in a negative way.

To summarize, reduced sleep in our teens has a negative effect on their brain development. Loss of sleep affects their mood and their ability to handle emotional situations, and puts them at a much higher risk for suicide as well as other mental health problems.

 

Counsellors and psychologists will focus on different areas with teenagers and their anxiety. A common, and one of the most important I think, is to ask about their sleep. As parents getting a sense of your teenager's sleep can give you insight on how they are doing and even an area to address.

 

How did you sleep?

Did you have any vivid dreams?

 

Throughout the week make a habit of asking your teenager about their sleep. When did they get to bed? Do they feel rested?

If your teen is too tired to give coherent answers, then look for other signs that their sleep is not great. In a carpool, or driving your teen to school, does your teenager fall asleep? This is a clear indication that they are not getting enough sleep.

 

Vivid dreams have been linked to being more anxious. While not always a sign that vivid dreams are related to anxiety research leans more highly to a connection. 

Finally, if your teenager is not getting 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night (or more for some teenagers) then they are sleep deprived. The average teenager in the U.S. sleeps 6.5 hours per night during the week.

 

Sleep is one underlying factor that, if addressed, would have enormous positive effects on our teen’s mental health, but also their performance in school and with sports. In fact, the sleep deprivation that is occurring throughout the globe in first world countries is having enormous negative consequences. It will be decades before we see how much of a negative impact poor sleep is having on our youth. It is also something that can be fixed.

 

TEENAGE SLEEP

 

“Imagine an experiment in which researchers forced subjects to wake up three hours before their natural rise time, then asked them to perform complex cognitive tasks, for five days straight. That’s a description of the average teen’s school week.” Heather Turgenev and Julie Wright, The Washington Post

 

I love this quote from two great counselors that have spent a large portion of their practice focusing on sleep. It is also interesting that when sleep medicine scientists want to test out the negative effects of sleep deprivation on our health, performance, genetics, risk factors for disease, and on and on; this is how they would set up their experiment. We are, in effect, conducting a very harmful experiment on our youth.

 

 

My Teenager Won’t Go To Bed! My Teenager Has Insomnia

 

Understanding your teenager’s circadian rhythm, or their body’s 24 hour clock, is an important first step in helping them improve their mental health and resolve their anxiety. As children, the need for sleep is very high, with earlier bedtimes and early wake times. As we move into adolescence our body’s internal clock moves forward, past what we, as adults, would normally go to bed. The hormone melatonin now rises later in the evening. While you, their parent, are having a melatonin rise preparing you for sleep at around 9 or 10 o’clock, your teenager is still wide awake. Their melatonin has not begun its nocturnal climb yet, delaying their sleep until 10 or 11 o’clock at night, or even later.

Add to this poor bedtime habits of drinking caffeinated drinks late in the day, or even at night, watching stimulating content and getting exposed to the light of our screens, eating late in the evening high caloric food, and you delay the onset of sleep even more; turning a ‘night-owl’ into a teenager with ‘insomnia’.

 

Jet-lag and our teenager’s week

 

My daughter recently moved to Grand Rapids Michigan. Her time zone is two hours ahead of ours here in Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t think that a two-hour time shift would make much of a difference, but waking up at 7 am their time is 5 am our time. (Our body really doesn’t know the difference. It feels like 5 in the morning.) If you normally wake up at 7 am Mountain Time then you have just shortchanged your sleep by two hours.

 

For a teenager asking them to wake up early is the same as asking you to wake up two hours earlier than your normal wake up time. Think on how you feel waking up at 4 am or 5 am? Were you functioning at your best? This is what many teenagers are being asked to do each week throughout the school year. Once the weekend hits they try to make up for their lack of sleep and sleep beyond what they normally would if allowed. Effectively they are experiencing jet-lag every weekend.

 

Why is this so critical with teenagers? Our teenager’s need for deep sleep increases throughout our adolescence into our early twenties. This is when memory processing and short-term memory gets consolidated into long-term memory. This is also the phase of sleep that does our ‘pruning’ of unwanted memory pathways. Most importantly, deep sleep is when we see the most cleansing of our brain, as the buildup of harmful proteins and chemicals from our brain’s workload or energy consumption throughout the day get ‘washed out’ or cleared by our glymphatic system. Every night our brain undergoes a ‘cleanse’.

A teenager’s sleep pattern has a greater amount of REM sleep in the last few hours of their night. REM sleep is ‘rich’ or greatest at the end of sleep. REM sleep is more commonly when we dream. Creativity and insight is also attributed to REM sleep. Most importantly, REM sleep is where we process emotional memories and trauma in a safe and ‘adrenaline’ free zone. Wake up a teenager too early and a lot of restorative and emotionally therapeutic sleep has been taken away. And we wonder why our teenager is in a ‘mood’. Not cool!

 

REM SLEEP = BETTER EMOTIONAL HEALTH

 

The physical and emotional consequences of reduced sleep are enormous. Sleeping in over the weekend is not enough to counteract 5 days of reduced sleep. (The science is solid on this. King Julien) We continue to live in sleep debt and our health and performance take a hit.

 

The term ‘social jet-lag’ has been used to describe the weekly battle that schedules and technology are having on the circadian rhythm of teenagers.

 

There is one thing that we can do that would have a profound effect on our teenager’s overall health, both mental and physical, and that is to protect and allow a full night’s sleep. One area of focus will give our families success, and that is to address our smart phone usage or screen-time. Focusing on this one thing is probably the most important area, with the greatest potential of improving our teenager’s sleep, but also our own.

 

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Addressing our screen-time is the single, most important area to improve our sleep.

 

Earlier we discussed the one thing that as parents we could do to help reduce our teenager’s anxiety was to spend time with them. Asking them to join us in the things that we do. Taking the time to ask them questions. The journey to better sleep should be considered as a family affair. A collaboration of medical and mental health businesses in Colorado Springs are working on a project to engage families in helping build better sleep habits. 

 

Create a Family Agreement

 

Addressing sleep habits as a family will be much more successful in improving your teenager's sleep.

Set up a family meeting or time to discuss your current sleep habits and get ideas from each family member on ways to improve

If you are only going to focus on ONE THING the use of devices or SCREEN-TIME is the best place to start.

Allow your teenager some control in the process of changing their sleep. They may have some great ideas that you may not have thought of.

 

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

 

Modeling behaviors is important to have greater 'buy-in' from your teenager.

Your plan needs to work for your family.

Not every idea that is suggested on the internet (including this post) will work consistently with every family. 

 

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Improve your teenager’s overall mental health and anxiety by improving their sleep.

 

Are you curious about your teenager’s sleep? The Headache Center’s program for Better Sleep, a multi-specialty group dedicated to diagnosing and treating complex problems as a team, uses current technology to get accurate and affordable sleep information over multiple nights.

 

Check out the Sleep Image Ring and how you can get real data on your teenager’s sleep. This helps with tailoring a treatment program specifically to your teenager’s needs.

 

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Let’s Talk

 

Sometimes we need some outside perspective. This is where seeking a counselor is a great option. We have included links to some great people that helped contribute to this article below. Another way to find someone that you or your teenager can connect with is to ask your friend group. This can be a great way to find out who is specializing in the area of what you and your teenager are struggling with. Here is a peek into the process and questions that counselors will ask.

 

“I always start with the basics first: do they know what is keeping them up at night/what are they worrying about? If they do, I go there. If not, then I investigate: diet, exercise, and screen time. What time are they turning off their phone and are they use a blue light blocker? Are they getting exercise? Are they eating an unhealthy diet or sugar before bed? What are they reading? Are they having anxious, fearful, or depressing thoughts? How is their home life, their relationship with parents? Do they feel safe at home? Are they happy/safe at school? Is there relationship distress with friends? This is the route I take and it’s been effective to target, understand, and address the insomnia issue. If nothing is present, I recommend that they seek medical advice.”

Andrew Koumis, Alpine Family Counseling

 

The number one cause of insomnia is psychological distress, worry and anxiety. Learning about why you are feeling worried or anxious and working with an experienced counselor or psychologist can be very helpful in restoring sleep. It is also important to note that sleep issues can have a negative effect on our mental health. With increased anxiety, in turn, affecting our sleep. And around and around we go!

 

IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP

IMPROVE YOUR ANXIETY

 

 

SPECIAL THANKS

 

With anything we do in life there are those that help us along our journey, making us better. Special thanks to these people as they dedicated their time and expertise to help make this post accurate, as well as helpful.

 

Micah and Connor, (best buds!) for their insight and contribution to this topic.

Trever Shirin, Mayfield Counselling

David Galvan, Summit Ministries and Soul Shop

Andrew Koumis, Alpine Family Counseling

 

 

RESOURCES

 

For El Paso County there are many resources available to assist parents needing help with their teenager.

 

Mayfield Counseling

Andrew and Corinne Koumis, Alpine Family Counseling

El Paso County Suicide Prevention Collaborative

Summit Ministries – CAMPS for parents and teens

 

Check out this book resource for parents of teenagers wanting more insight into their teen’s sleep. Generation Sleepless

 

 

Written by Joel Rauser, Physical Therapist

Owner of Cornerstone Physical Therapy and The Headache Center

 

 

What your teenager wants you to know about their anxiety