Caution… Merge Ahead!

Childhood Anxiety: Teen Driving Edition - are you ready?


Have you ever stressed or struggled with anxiety while merging into traffic?  Cars flying at you from every direction!  How fast are they going, how fast am I going…speed up, slow down?  Is now the right time to merge?

Now, envision putting your teen, your baby, in the driver’s seat.  I know he looks like a man child, hairy with a scratchy voice, but upon first glance you see his little chubby 3 year old hands grasping the wheel.  You quickly get lost in memories of those tiny hands racing toy cars around the house.  As the vehicle lurches ahead, you SNAP out of it.  Your palms are sweating profusely as you realize those hands aren’t so tiny anymore.

Are you feeling anxious yet?  How do you think your teen feels?

Rest assured, they have wished and dreamed of this day, now filled with overwhelming nervous energy, exhilarating excitement, and feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure, for years.  Their insurmountable anxiety is at it’s peak as they pull forward, uncertain of the gas and braking system.  The vehicle jerks ahead, a quirky, awkward feeling.  On this day, you are their parent, judging them, grading them.  But you are also their teacher and mentor; guiding them and trusting them with your life, and theirs.

Caution, you have entered the perpetual merge into your child’s journey to adulthood.  A bittersweet moment in motherhood, where you are now the passenger, tossing your child the keys of independent choice, and ownership of their actions.

Commonly this is a stressful and anxious time for your teen.  Not only are they coping with puberty, high stress school environments, driving, peer pressure, and unrealistic societal expectations, but also judgement and fear of failure.  This is an opportunity for childhood anxiety to creep in.  It can stop them in their tracks.  It is a different type of childhood anxiety, one that is generally short lived and circumstantial, but can still pose a health risk for your developing child.  Teenagers do not know how to deal with these feeling and will look to you for help.  They are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally.  This season of their lives provides an elemental building block for a solid future. They need to develop confidence, a strong moral compass and ownership of action.

Life is in constant motion, and as our children enter into this anxiously awaited rite of passage, they stumble upon the beginning of the perpetual merge!  The same way we feel anxious while merging into traffic, our kids feel the pressure known as childhood anxiety.  Much of their lives have been controlled by their parents or a trusted adult.  It can be mentally taxing to suddenly be the leader and the one making decisions about their future.  Many teens don’t understand this step in life but they often feel the pressures associated with it.  Growing up is hard, and some kids are not ready for it.  They may feel anxious, depressed, sad, fearful, or burdened, which are all symptoms associated with childhood anxiety.

What does my teen’s stress look like?

Childhood Anxiety: Teen Driving Edition - when they start driving

We need to help them identify their stress, that looks different for a teen than anxiety in younger children.  Now, instead of guiding our child to see the problem, we must guide our teen to identify their anxiety or stress on their own.  We must help them put their feelings into words and help them to see the road blocks or triggers they need to overcome.  Teaching them a healthy way to identify their anxiety will provide needed tools as they shift into the driver’s seat of life.  It also teaches your child assertive independence and skills they need to build confidence.  These are tools they will be able to use as they enter adulthood.

Kids that suffer from childhood anxiety often become anxious teens and go onto be anxious adults.  By being a part of this developmental process, you will feel confident knowing that you are teaching your child independence and the ability to control their mental angst.

Building Relationships

A strong parent child relationship is an important part of parenting.  Our children are innocently born into a harsh world and, as parents, we protect them from the moment they are conceived.  We put them in car seats, take them to the doctor, foster their developmental milestones, filter what they watch, see, hear…all knowing they are ours for such a short time.  We are then tasked with teaching our kids to be independent, self-thinkers that can, and will, one day be a positive impact on the world!

How to build a meaningful relationship with your teen!

It starts with building relationships.  At birth it is a dependent relationship.  Our children depend on us to meet all their needs in order for them to thrive.  Toddlers become more independent as they can walk and talk and formulate their own ideas and opinions.  There is a shift in the parent child relationship when they enter teenage years.  They are on the verge of developing an advanced concept of independence, both mentally and physically, and need a strong trusting relationship.

The stress and anxiety experienced personifies what our children experience in life while growing.  We teach them the ability to adapt and continue to prepare them for the ultimate independence of adulthood.  With each phase of increasing independence, we must continue building a strong, mutually respectful relationship with our children.  We must talk to them, not AT them, listen and hear them. We have to grow with them and appreciate their ideas.  When our relationship grows with them we are able to be an active part of their day.  They will come to us, looking for advice and assistance.  We become a safe place where they can be vulnerable.  When my teen sees road blocks, or obstacles ahead, I want them to know they can take a detour to confide in me.  This relationship is not the same relationship you had with your toddler, but is mature and meaningful.  By building strong relationships with our children, we are also building a confidant and a lasting friendship.

Unconditional Love

Our children need to know that they are unconditionally loved without excessive fear of punishment.  Don’t get me wrong, consequences are completely necessary, and sometimes overlooked.  It is vital that we teach our children to value authority, but the consequence should fit the action.  This teaches kids that they have to be responsible and own their words and behaviors.  It teaches them how to accept blame for their mistakes.  We all make mistakes. Without mistakes there would be no learning!

Teen driving and stress of growing up

When our kids are young their consequence was a time out or taking a toy away.  As developing teens, however, we should make the consequence meaningful and seize the teachable moments.  It is often beneficial to allow your teen to be an active part of the conflict resolution process and to let them help decide a reasonable consequence for their undesirable actions.  You may be surprised; sometimes their punishment is much harsher than you may have prescribed, but more impactful.  Teach them that you respect them and allows them to take ownership for their actions.  By showing them unconditional love, and reinforcing that we love them even when they make mistakes, we can build trust and a valued sense of self worth.

Break Communication Barriers

It is important to remove communication barriers and be an available partner and advocate for your teenager.  The conversations we have with our teen should be an ongoing narrative that allows them to grow and develop.  Check in with them often as anxiety can enter unannounced.  There are new stressors daily.  We do not know what is going on in the mind of our teen without breaking all the road blocks to communication.

Instead of asking if they had a good day –  ask if they were happy, if they ate with a friend, if there was anything funny, or challenging in their day.”  Keep the narrative open by sharing some things about your day, or life experiences, and ask their advice or opinion.  When we keep open lines of communication with our teen, we break the communication barriers, and become an available option when they need to talk.

These open lanes of communication will allow us to see the world through their eyes.  It may expose other stressful situations that may be going on and give you the ability to identify feelings or symptoms that need guidance or additional support.  There are links between anxiety disorder and depression.  Suicide is a word that no one likes to talk about, but it is real, and needs awareness.  Youth suicide statistics are daunting and at epidemic proportions.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, and 4 out of every 5 teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs. (2017 CDC WISQARS)

Did you know as parents we have the ability to validate our children and help reduce their worry and fear?  I am continually doing mental check-ins with my kids.  The way we react to a childhood heart break can define how they deal with similar situations in the future.  The amount of pressure we impose on our children with regard to educational rigor, grades and unrealistic demands can mold their mindset and goals for future success.  These experiences can also effect the way they feel about themselves.  Build meaningful, trusting relationships with your kids, and check in with them often.  They may be trying to tell you something!

Plan for Imperfection

Caution, our teens are in a constantly changing stage of life, and it is OK to hit the brakes.  Help them set realistic goals and expectations.  I know for a fact, I would have been a hot mess with all the burdens our kids are carrying around today.  Let them make mistakes, and be proud of a hard earned “B” Let them be kids just a little bit longer.  Plan for imperfection, and prepare them for life’s perpetual merge.  It is important they know how to cope with anxiety and the weight the world brings. Be there for them even if you do not understand or agree with their actions.  The single most important thing we can give our children is a safe place of refuge.

Partnering with our children as they enter from toddler to teen

Life today is busy. We rush from one thing to the next.  Teens have a lot on their shoulders and often feel helpless with no way to change their situation, or deal with their stress and anxiety.  Childhood anxiety can manifest as worry about grades, peer groups, unfamiliar bodily changes, driving, college, money, family stress, societal pressures, etc.  It is no surprise our children are struggling with anxiety, and with their constantly changing lives, they need our support and guidance to teach them that it is OK to have bad days.  Let them know it is OK to say it is too hard.

Let your kids know, “it is OK to not be OK!”

Teach them to slow down and map out the journey.  This is a helpful tool for people that suffer with childhood anxiety.  Make schedules that are not overwhelming and leave space and time to breathe!  It is good to learn and do things you enjoy, teach our kids about balance and the art of planning.  Life is constantly in motion, but realistic game plans allow us to organize tasks into manageable routines and schedules.

Parenting is hard, and as parents we want our kids to be happy, and successful.  Teach your kids to enjoy life, find joy in the simple things, and how to overcome daily stress and childhood anxiety.  Give them the keys to safely and confidently navigate from the driver’s seat.

Have you checked-in with your teen lately?

*This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for entertainment and educational purposes only.  Depression is a disorder often linked with Anxiety Disorder.  Please seek a licensed medical professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

About the author: Tanya Goytia is a mother, wife, sister and friend. She is active in her children’s lives, a sports mom and a graduate of Texas A&M University. Her degree is in sociology and her masters work is in developmental psychology and elementary education. She is a regularly contributing author to