7 strategies to respond to teenage girls’ stress and anxiety

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Nov 13, 2019

Photo by Bruno Cervera

I’m a researcher, leader, and a mom.

As such, I’m grieved by the stress and anxiety our teenagers are marinating in today. While I’m equally concerned by the mental health challenges of girls and boys, my previous post highlights research trends that can help us grasp the unique hurdles faced by our girls.

Thankfully, Lisa Damour’s Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls helped me identify seven vital strategies parents and leaders can use to respond teenage girls’ stress and anxiety. While I am focusing these recommendations on our “girls,” I plan on using these in my own home with both my son and daughters and at church and our kids’ schools with all the teenagers I can. Whether you’re a parent or leader, and whether you spend more time with girls or boys, I hope you are able to do the same.

#1: Help our girls see that anxiety actually started out as a friend, not an enemy.

If it wasn’t for stress, anxiety, and the corresponding “flight-or-flight” release of adrenaline, I wouldn’t be writing this today. I would have been hit by a car by now. Looking back generations, my ancestors would have been devoured by predators.

In Damour’s therapeutic work with adolescent girls, she often tries to help them see how the anxiety they feel is very much an ally, not just an enemy. That “nervous feeling” you start to get when you walk into a new situation, or face a new challenge, means your brain’s built-in alarm system is telling you that it’s risky. That’s a gift, and a feeling or warning sign to pay attention to.

#2: Wait until the girl’s snow globe calms down before trying to reassure her.

One of the more powerful images in Under Pressure is Damour’s description of a visit to a colleague’s office. The colleague sat with her near a coffee table with a “glitter jar” (think snow globe) on it, and, after shaking the jar, explained,

“’When the girls come to my office in a panic … and I can tell that they’re just a wreck … I say to the girl, ‘Right now, this is what it’s like in your brain. So first, let’s settle your glitter.’” (38)

Only when the glitter (the girls’ intense emotion) settles a bit is the teenager open to reassurances and suggestions. When we as parents and mentors can hold our advice and encouragement until the girl’s “glitter” calms down, we communicate that we are not frightened by her feelings, and we give her brain time for the more rational cortex to join the conversation.

This is why reassuring an anxiety-plagued girl that “it will be OK” is not just useless, it often triggers her adamant “No, it won’t” response. Her glitter hasn’t settled yet.

It can be particularly challenging for parents to wait out the “glitter storm,” so Damour recommends having a ritual, like making a cup of tea, to distract parents and consume time. At the very least, try helping your teenager sit down and take a few deep breaths before trying to talk through anything.

(I’ll be honest: my husband would probably say the “swirling glitter globe” is true periodically with me. And I’m a bit older than a teenager. Plus I know plenty of males of all ages who hear advice and encouragement better after their “glitter” has settled. So perhaps we could all use this principle!)

#3: When possible, help our girls approach the source of anxiety.

Avoidance can feed anxiety. When your daughter, stepdaughter, or a girl you care about deeply is begging to miss the science test, the next speech tournament, or the awkward Friday night party, it’s tempting to say “yes” and give them a temporary reprieve. And perhaps at times that is the right response. The problem is that it can make the next test, tournament, or social gathering loom even larger. Damour suggests that adults and mentors journeying with a stressed girl can “organize yourself around helping her move toward the threat, even in baby steps, rather than running away from it” (36).

I know one family whose middle schooler has tearfully asked approximately forty times to miss school, church, and other events that fill her with moderate to severe anxiety. The parents have said “yes” a handful of times when their prayerful intuition told them it was the right response, but they were clear with their daughter that she needed to go to school tomorrow, and to church next Sunday, to keep learning to face those fears.

#4: Play the “What will you do then?” game.

Damour calls this game “worst-case scenario,” but I would rather call it “What will you do then?” When a girl is fearing being left out at the next party, or not picked for the basketball tournament in PE, ask her: And what will you do then? Often that initial response leads the girl to add, “But then …” and add a new stressful possible outcome. At that moment, we as adults have the opportunity to ask a second time, “So what will you do then?”

It can take multiple rounds of this game to bring a sense of relief, but helping girls identify possible responses will help increase their sense of control in the situation. And hopefully it will also eventually help them figure out possible response scenarios on their own—when you’re not around.

#5: “That stinks … And you can handle it.”

Damour believes that regardless of age, experiences we face can be divided into three categories: things we like, things we can handle, and things that constitute a crisis (43). When young people get upset, they forget that middle category.

When we think that’s happening, Damour advises a two-part response. First, we empathize with our girls. She recommends using the phrase, “Oh that stinks.” (45)

And then we affirm, “But I think you can handle it.” (This would also be a good time to play the “What will you do then?” game described above.) Reinforcing our belief in a teenager’s resilience can boost their confidence while also helping them cope with the real ups and downs of life.

#6: Use specific strategies around technology, sleep, and downtime.

In the midst of the above recommendations that can be helpful with girls across the board, a number of strategies might be more helpful for some girls than others.

TechnologyWhether it’s the dismal national news headlines or the Friday night party she wasn’t invited to, omnipresent technology can certainly increase a girl’s stress and anxiety. Consider limiting girls’ access to their devices at meals, at bedtime, and during homework. Invite them to think about how constant FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”) from what they see online is exacerbating their stress, and see what sort of boundaries they might want to experiment with.

Sleep – If a girl is struggling with stress, anxiety, and depression, Damour recommends making sure she receives a minimum of seven hours, but ideally at least eight hours, of sleep.

Downtime – Many anxious girls experience significant relief when they cut activities and add more downtime to their schedule. Damour encourages a family to set activity levels at about 75% of what they can actually accomplish so they have the 25% margin needed for the unexpected and for adequate rest.

#7: Consider recommending a medical professional or trained therapist.

I personally know more anxious and stressed teenagers than I can count who have benefitted from professional therapy. The right professional can teach girls relaxation techniques, thinking strategies, and routines that may make their lives—and fears—manageable.

Having said that, the brain is an organ. Like our hearts. And our kidneys. At times, our brains need prescription medicine, not necessarily as a first line of approach, but as a way to ward off extreme anxiety symptoms—either for a short while or for the long-term.

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Today's young people are anxious. 

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Faith in an Anxious World

Faith in an Anxious World is a 4-week multimedia curriculum that will equip you with the tools you need to guide young people in your care, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living. Together you’ll reflect on New Testament stories, watch Jesus enter into anxious situations with his disciples, and explore life in an anxious but hope-filled world.

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Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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