Difficulty of Trying to Reason with Panic: How to Handle Teens with Anxiety
By Jeanette Lorandini
The teenage brain can arguably be called a mess.
There are so many factors that are at work inside the mind of a teen. Certainly, there are the responses to the varied experiences of being a teenager in the 21st century. These could be how they interact with other teens (either in person or virtually), school, family dynamics, etc.
There are also the physical and biological aspects of the teenage brain. For instance, we know that it takes about 25 years for the human brain to develop. What this all means is that when teens experience stress, and specifically panic, it can be hard to reason with them.
Here’s how to handle those situations.
The Amygdala and the Teenage Brain
There’s more to why your teen doesn’t listen to reason. It has to do with biology. When teens experience stress, their brains trigger a panic response. We often describe this response in terms of “fight, flight, freeze.”
What this means is that when your teen panics, their brain is telling them that these are the best courses of action. Essentially, the amygdala, which handles this response, overrides the more logical parts of your teen’s brain.
Why Your Teen Can’t Be reasoned With
Because your teen gets stuck in fight, flight, or freeze, they become impossible to reason with. You might say all the logical reasons your teen can calm down and relax. But they are not hearing it.
For instance, let’s say they are practicing for their drivers’ license. The two of you are riding together in the car, with your teen behind the wheel. However, they don’t notice the upcoming intersection with the stop sign. You tell them, “Stop!” Their foot slams on the brake and they start talking really fast.
Maybe they are apologizing at a high rate of speed. Or, they are upset and saying how they will never learn to drive. Calming them down with logic will not work right now. Their brain won’t let them.
Using Breathing Techniques to Regain Calm
Because teens can’t process situations rationally in these moments, they need something more basic to focus on. A great idea is using breathing exercises. Breathing exercises serve two purposes.
- They allow for more oxygen to be inhaled and distributed by the bloodstream
- Breathing intentionally gives your teen something else to focus on rather than what created the panic
Breathing techniques can be as simple as breath, hold, exhale, hold. They can be done for a few cycles or even minutes. It helps that both you and your teen practice ahead of time.
Have a code word that your teen will recognize when they are stressed to indicate they should breathe. In the moment, stay with your teen, encourage them, guide them through the breathing. However, avoid trying to process with them.
After the Panic Has Passed
Once the moment has passed, your teen might feel embarrassed or upset at themselves. This is when it’s useful to be encouraging. Remind them they used focused breathing. Normalize the idea that everyone experiences fear from time-to-time. It’s okay.
If they seem to be in the right headspace, then now might be appropriate to talk about the situation more rationally, what they did well, and what they could do differently next time.
Don’t Take it Personally
Throughout these moments, your teen is most likely to say things that are hurtful to you. When this happens, take a mental step back from the situation. Recognize that they are in fight, flight, freeze mode. They are not being rational. This helps to take the personal sting out of those comments. Once the anxiety has passed, reflect with them on the situation. However, avoid getting angry with them. Rather, use it as a learning experience.
By teaching your teen coping tools and appropriately coaching them through these difficult moments, you will empower them to better handle anxiety on their own. However, if both you and your teen are struggling to find any success, ask for help. Ask a therapist how anxiety treatment will help.
Click here for more information on Anxiety Treatment.