Adolescence, anxiety and parenting
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Adolescence, anxiety and parenting

Parents can help their adolescents by providing support and guidance when they need it

Adolescence, anxiety and parenting

The transition from childhood to adolescence is formidable, between the age of 10 to19, major changes occur in physical, cognitive, social, and moral development. Adolescence is a mixed stage of both disorientation and discovery. The considerable task for adolescents is to establish their self-identity. By determining as best they can, a sense of who they are, they attempt to find a group that reflects or reinforces their self-identity. 

Their group allows them to feel that they stand out from the crowd. The phase of development allows the adolescent to search for their sense of self. This is beneficial to answering the increasingly prime question that they could not consider in the early stages of development of ‘Who am I’?

The phase of adolescent development brings more difficulties than that of the teens' social development. With the help of cognitive development, they begin to form an organized system of personality traits. Their traits allow them to form a self-concept.

Self-concept is a set of attributes, abilities, attitudes, and values that an adolescent believes define who he or she is. The ability to think in new ways grants them to add new aspects of self-esteem, and how they feel about their 'self'. This can occur through life experiences such as learning to form close friendships, the decision to choose a career, to do a job, setting up their priorities, and romantic appeal.

Therefore, parents can help their adolescents by providing support and guidance when they need it. This means that parents will themselves need some patience, understanding, and observation skills when they begin to see their children lean more on their friends and less on them or where their adolescence is more inclined to. Here then the role of the parenting, dimension of support, and warmth includes affection, expression of positive affect and positive regard, and parent involvement comes in. 

Although adolescence is a period of increasing separation and developing independence, evidence confirms the importance of the family unit during this period and parents continue to exert significant influence on their adolescents.

Because adolescence is a time of emotional, physical, and social changes, which are happening at the same time as their interests and choices are changing, many go through complicated and overwhelming feelings. This can come into play when going through something new or tough in life, hence they begin to feel anxious about many things in regular life. For example, adolescents might feel anxious about starting secondary school, physically looking in a particular way, fitting in with friends, or performing in sports at school. Also, as their independence increases, they might feel anxious about responsibilities, decisions, priorities, employment, and money.

Adolescents with anxiety may feel extremely worried or nervous more frequently about health, family, money, or some things else with reason or without any reason to worry about them. Anxiety is an emotion, characterized by feelings of tension, mixed thoughts, worry and physical changes like increased blood pressure, sweatiness, feelings like butterflies in the stomach, pain in the stomach, shakiness, nausea, and can have a flight of ideas. And one’s behaviour is avoiding what’s causing the anxiety or wanting a lot of reassurance.

Anxiety may play a role in many disorders, but anxiety disorders are those in which intense, observable anxiety or fear is central to the problem. It is both a mental and physical state of negative expectation. It can affect an individual in four ways

  •     The way one feels
  •     The way one thinks
  •     The way one's body works
  •     The way one behaves

Dr. Robert Plutchik, a psychologist, believed that while humans have the capacity to experience over 34,000 unique emotions, there are eight primary, primordial emotions that serve as the foundation for other feelings, in all of their degrees and intensities, to exist and take place. 

In a study, it is found that parental behaviours have been implicated in the development and maintenance of anxiety in children and adolescents. There’s fairly consistent preliminary evidence for an association between anxiety and perceived parental control and anxious rearing in adolescence. 

If parents focus on providing the support that they need during this time, it will help their adolescents transition through social development changes with less stress and with more positive outcomes.

It is easy to feel a sense of loss over this shift in adolescence when they begin getting advice on social relationships from their friends. Parents may feel better when they understand that this is a sign of maturity and a natural process. They can further accept this change by knowing that they still need them. 

All the critical and important parts of an adolescent's thoughts and targeted achievements, parents can guide them, into good academic decisions, making realistic career goals, and plans for the future. It will also help parents recognize their sensitive thoughts and feelings. 

At times a nod and a smile can convey a lot to adolescents about your acceptance of their search for what is right. This works greater than disagreeing or telling them that they need to be more realistic. Once the adolescent understands that you support them, even with all of their fables and social groups, they will know that they can share more of their private thoughts and feelings with you. 

Dante Cicchetti, Developmental Psychology and Developmental Psychopathology Scientist, says when parenting behaviours are neither positive nor adaptive, however, this may pose a risk for youth anxiety problems, as disruptions in the child’s normal development due to poor parenting may lead to psychopathology.

Anxiety is marked by cognitive distortions, threat biases, and focused attention to danger.  Bridie Gallagher, a clinical psychologist, and Sam Cartwright-Hatton, a professor, Clinical Child Psychologist, School of Psychology, University of Sussex, indicate that anxious children are prone to overgeneralizing, selective abstraction, personalizing, and catastrophizing negative thoughts and emotions.

Parenting of adolescents

Parenting refers to a number of parental childrearing behaviors, several of which have been implicated as potential risk factors for youth anxiety problems. Parent psychopathology is a critical risk factor for anxiety and depression in adolescents.

Children of anxious parents have 2-7 times the risk of developing an anxiety disorder compared to children of non-anxious parents.

Potential methods of transmission of psychopathology from parents to adolescents include genetics, relationship factors that are low support or warmth, marital conflict and the family stress associated with it, and modelling of maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance of feared situations and negatively biased interpretations of events. 

Around 53% of children surveyed never tell their parents if they have been punished at school, undermining a ‘trusted relationship’ between parent and child.

Three important dimensions of parenting have been hypothesized to contribute to the development of youth anxiety.

Negative parenting - It is traditionally comprised of the constructs of parental control and rejection. Parental control introduces excessive parental regulation of children’s activities and routines, encouragement of children’s dependence on parents, and instruction of children on how to think and feel.

Physical punishment or Corporal punishment is highly prevalent globally, both in homes and schools. Around 60% of children aged 2 to 14 years regularly suffer physical punishment from their parents or other caregivers. 

Physical punishments trigger harmful psychological and physiological responses. Children not only experience shame, pain, anger, fear, sadness, and guilt but also feel threatened which leads to physiological stress and the activation of neural pathways that support dealing with danger. 

Children who have been physically punished tend to indicate high hormonal reactivity to stress, overloaded biological systems, including the nervous, cardiovascular, and nutritional systems, and changes in brain structure and function. 

According to a report by Agrasar, an NGO, in India, an average of 43% said they were regularly beaten by teachers. 74% of children also experienced beatings at home. And 71% of children believed it's okay to be beaten up for a reason, having been taught it's for 'their own good' and 'necessary'. 

According to a UNICEF report, Shouting, Slapping, and Denying Food - Indian parents use 30 different ways of abuse

Indian states like Orissa, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh where it was observed that parents used a variety of ways to discipline their children or even bear their parents' frustration. In Egypt 93%, and in Zimbabwe 63% of children experience violent discipline at home.

Anxious rearing - It refers to a parent’s tendency to demonstrate anxious thoughts, feelings, or avoidant behaviors in front of the child. Social learning suggests that children may learn and model parents’ anxious and avoidant behaviors through observation.

Discipline style - 48% of children experience non-abusive physical discipline in their lifetime. Discipline means to impart knowledge and skill to teach, however it often comprises punishment and control. 

It is helpful to look at parental discipline techniques in two sub-dimensions: inductive discipline and power assertive discipline.

Inductive discipline refers to making the child feel responsible for their behavior and understand the effects of their misbehavior on others, consisting of less aggressive discipline behaviors such as explaining child misbehaviors, ignoring child misbehavior, and monitoring child behaviors.

Power assertive discipline uses techniques such as corporal punishment, deprivation of privileges, psychological aggression, and penalty tasks. 

When to be considered anxiety

  •     Can’t stop or control worrying
  •     Constantly feels nervous, anxious, or on edge
  •     Has anxious feelings that continue for a week, month, or even longer
  •     Having anxious feelings that interfere with their schoolwork, socializing, and routine activities

Parents' role in helping adolescents 

  •     Encourage your child to talk about anxiety
  •     Acknowledge the child's feelings
  •     Encourage brave behaviour
  •     Positive self-talk
  •     Self-compassion
  •     Spend time with them
  •     Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and drugs
  •     Get plenty of water and healthy foods at a regular time
  •     Sleep patterns must be regular
  •     Make time for together family routine activities

Who can help

  •     School Counsellor
  •     Clinical Psychologists specialized in child and adolescent mental health
  •     Counsellor at the hospital or local community centre
  •     Mental health service provider at NGO

Anamika is a clinical psychologist. She specializes in exceptional children and is an educational counsellor associated with NGOs. She also writes articles for