Bedford High School parents and caregivers gathered via Zoom with an internationally-known psychotherapist last week to discuss how they can help their teenagers manage and navigate anxiety, depression, and other challenges of a post-pandemic world.
The support seminar was hosted by author and speaker Lynn Lyons, who has worked as a psychotherapist for 31 years. The mother of two college-aged men, Lyons lives in Concord, NH, and sees families for therapy sessions out of her home when she’s not teaching.
The webinar was entitled “Now What? Helping Families Manage Emotionally During Uncertain Times.” Sponsors included the municipal Health Departments of Bedford, Carlisle, and Concord. A similar lecture is planned for this week for parents of younger students.
Lyons explained that since anxiety and depression are known to have “very strong” generational ties, she doesn’t see teens alone in her practice but does talk with them one to one.
“It doesn’t really make sense to me that I would impart all I know about anxiety, and what we can do about it, and how to manage worry, and not include the parents,” she said. “When I say that it’s a family thing … and when I say there’s such a strong generational component to it, that is not me saying I’m blaming parents for this.”
Rather than place blame on parents, Lyons’s goal was to make them aware of the social and emotional forces that influence their kids’ behavior. Since different routines and expectations are a major proponent of anxiety, Lyons said the pandemic., paired with a “dark, cold, and long” winter in isolation, generally made people’s mental health situations worse.
“We’re heading into the spring and summer, the vaccines are happening, and we have to think now how we’re going to rejuvenate, reset, and move forward … and what are the things you should know about anxiety and depression,” Lyons said.
Because anxiety “demands certainty and comfort,” Lyons told parents that eliminating stress, difficulty, or “triggers” for their kid is the worst way to cope. She also said “catastrophic language” — articulating a worst-case scenario — is damaging for teens with anxiety as well.
“When adults express their fears in front of children in a pretty constant way, these kids don’t develop the ability to assess reasonable risk,” Lyons explained. Doing so causes kids to view the real world as an unsafe place, which subsequently prevents them from eventually gaining a sense of self-control and independence.
“The problem of catastrophic thinking is that it feels like problem-solving,” Lyons said. “We want kids to be able to assess reasonable risk.”
According to Lyons, most parents “slip up” and try to eliminate problems for their kids instead of dealing with them because parents don’t want to see their children suffer, especially if they experience anxiety and know how paralyzing it can be.
“If you are a parent who deals with anxiety, you are going to be absolutely empathic to what your child is experiencing, and you don’t want your child to experience what you experienced,” she said.
However, numbing kids to anxiety ends up making the problem worse and can eventually stem into serious mental health issues. Lyons compared anxiety to a speech impediment and said parents would never eliminate all ‘S’ words from their child’s vocabulary and expect to correct a lisp.
“The more that you focus on elimination, the stronger anxiety gets — and yet, that’s what most people do. It’s what most schools do, and it’s what a heck of a lot of therapists do,” she said.
In addition to the deleterious effects this “elimination strategy” creates, it can also act as a gateway to alcohol and drug use, as kids become used to escaping reality, Lyons said, adding that since the beginning of the pandemic, substance abuse among teens has increased.
“When we’re thinking about this elimination culture, we really have to shift the paradigm,” Lyons said. For this reason, she stressed the importance of dealing with and treating an anxiety disorder rather than succumbing to or ignoring it.
“An untreated anxiety disorder in a kid … is one of the top predictors of developing depression by the time you hit adolescence or young adulthood,” she said. “Unfortunately, anxiety, if we do nothing about it, is the express lane into carrying a diagnosis of depression later on.”
When working with families, Lyons said she mainly pays attention to what skills need to be taught. “The skills we teach in depression and anxiety treatment are virtually the same as what we want to use for prevention,” she said.
Lyons said it’s important for parents who deal with anxiety to educate their kids about how it works and to dispel any stigmas or myths about mental health. “We need to really focus on how we want to emotionally equip [teens] so that they can move into the next stages of their lives,” she said.
The first step to preventing anxiety is viewing treatment as a skill-building exercise, Lyons said. Parents must have an open dialogue with children and “put more emphasis” on building their connection and relationship skills, particularly during the middle and high school years.
Another skill Lyons recommended parents develop is flexibility. “Most people who are anxious use rigidity as a way to manage,” she said. Because of this, disrupting routines and norms can be beneficial for kids dealing with mental illness.
Since anxiety is typically predictable and redundant, Lyons said it’s helpful to be aware of its patterns. “What you worry about is not the thing I’m interested in,” she said. “What I’m interested in is how you worry. I’m interested in your relationship between you and your anxiety.”
Rather than identifying the cause, parents and kids should focus on how they respond to anxiety. Oftentimes, Lyons said parents of kids who deal with anxiety try to “shift the content” and “rearrange the world.”
“If we look at it in the bigger picture, it really comes down to emotional management,” she added. “How do we teach our teenagers to be able to become observers of their own responses and reactions so they can begin to recognize there’s some space between the thought and the feeling, and the reaction?”
Without creating space between feelings and reactions, Lyons said it’s easy to get “hijacked” by the response.
She concluded her discussion with the reminder that anxiety and depression are only part of a person. “This is really important for teenagers who are taking on diagnosis as identity,” she said. “We all have different parts of us.”
According to Lyons, one of the most damaging words a kid can hear is that mental illnesses are permanent or “the way their brains are wired. Why in the world would we tell a young person who is struggling with anxiety or depression that this is who they are and they’re going to be like this forever?” Lyons asked. “It gets in the way of the very things they need in order to recover.”
Reminding kids that anxiety and depression are common but painful human experiences is not only comforting but also helpful for their growth and development moving forward.
“The fact that the brain is malleable and changing all the time should be a message that teenagers hear on a very, very regular basis,” Lyons said.