The Deseret News is exploring why teens are more anxious than ever and how families and communities can help. This is the latest in a multi-part series.
SALT LAKE CITY — The reasons boys struggle with anxiety may be fairly similar to girls, but the way boys deal with it can be very different. Instead of recognizing anxiety, parents and caregivers may think a boy is belligerent or mad or simply unengaged. Parents can help in a number of ways:
Help him express emotions
Boys need a vocabulary to express what’s bothering them — and may need help to find the words. When a boy says he’s stressed, is he feeling overwhelmed, worried or frustrated? Naming emotions precisely can provide a course of action. Picture books about emotions may help parents teach young boys how to speak about their emotions early, while funny emotion face charts may be helpful for older boys.
Listen without judgment
Boys are often most comfortable with side-by-side, rather than face-to-face conversations. Car rides are great for that. The key is to let him talk and to listen without being distracted. Help him work through things, instead of jumping in to fix them.
Have him try what vexes him
It’s called “exposure therapy” and involves having boys do — and survive — what worries them, in manageable doses. If your son doesn’t want to talk to strangers, help him find low-risk situations to strike up a conversation and realize it’s not that bad, even if he gets rebuffed. Big victories arise from little ones.
Show him role models who struggled
Anxious boys respond to mentors who’ve felt anxiety too. So be on the lookout for role models who are good at something your son values and who admit to their own anxious struggles. A bibliophile son may not care that a famous sports figure said he was anxious, but hearing of novelist John Green’s anxiety could make a difference.
Don’t let him be a hermit
Boys tend to avoid situations that bother them. Parents should know that a boy who holes up in his room to play video games may be less into the games than into avoiding something. This is where having a vocabulary to talk through the issue helps. There’s a delicate balance between giving in and going to war. Be gentle, but insist.
He needs lots of sleep
A teenage boy needs 9 to 10 hours sleep a night, which is pretty hard to get with homework and activities and early school start times. Parents can help by keeping electronics like TV, computers, video games and smartphones out of the bedroom. Ingrain the idea that bedrooms are for sleeping and it’s best to sleep and wake up the same time each day.
Talk about brain-gut connection
Food plays an integral part in how people feel and there’s a link between proper nutrition and feeling healthy, physically and mentally. Boys may be especially careless about what they eat. Maybe he’d enjoy picking out some recipes and learning how to cook.
Reach out — literally
Physical touch is important to humans — and adolescent boys are no exception, though they may be less apt to seek or receive physical, affectionate gestures well. Be affectionate, even if it’s just a pat on the back or an arm draped over the shoulder. If he looks sad, go ahead and ask, “Can I give you a hug?” If the answer’s “no,” though, respect it and assure him he’s still loved and you’re always good for a hug when he’s ready.
Exercise it out
Physical activity naturally elevates mood. Encourage him to get off the couch and engage regularly in exercise. This might also help him develop or nurture friendships.
Encourage real relationships
Social media and video games make it easy to have digital relationships, but it’s important to talk with people face to face. While you’re at it, set limits on media use and model limits yourself.
Get him to help others
Encourage him to do things for other people. Helping an elderly neighbor or joining a group to clean up along the river are great ways to engage and hone relationship skills and it reminds teens that there’s a world beyond their own struggles.
Teach him mindfulness
Teach him to breathe when he’s stressed and to practice mindfulness. If he’s unsure how to start, there are plenty of apps to teach him or make it a new family hobby. Prayer, meditation and other mindful practices have all been shown to reduce boys’ stress.
Source: Deseret News interviews