Parenting teenagers can be complicated and perplexing! How do we know what to do and when to offer help?
How do we identify when to step back and how to do so in the best way possible for our child? It’s not always easy.
As a mum to 3 girls (2 grown up, 1 teenager left at home!), I’ve discovered that it’s a very individual journey for each of them. As a parent, it’s also a constant learning experience.
A child’s teenage years can be a time of huge change. With change, it can be common for teenagers to experience feelings of insecurity and anxiety as they navigate their world as developing young adults.
An insecure teen can find themselves filled with self-doubt and experience feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy.
This can sometimes produce unpleasant and unwanted results including:
- Intrusive negative thoughts
- Negative feelings
- Symptoms of anxiety including social anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Body image issues
- Feelings of anxiety around their goals, relationships, self-worth, high school academic pressures and exams
In Janet Lehman’s article ‘Anxious kids: are you dealing with an insecure teen?’ she says:
“It’s also a time when parents often go from having a special, positive bond with their child to a phase where your kid wants to push you away. At the same time, they’re also pulling you in for reassurance. It’s as if your child is saying, “I love you, I hate you; I need your help, you’re embarrassing me; stay close, but I don’t want you to walk next to me on the street.” For all these reasons and more, adolescence is an anxiety–provoking, tumultuous time, both for your child and for you”.
Where Does Insecurity in Teenagers Come From?
Insecurity in teenagers often develops when they compare themselves to others, especially peers.
Whilst not always true, teenagers can experience the reality of feeling different as negative.
Expectations from others and themselves can lead to a fear of failure – will a close friend, teacher or parent feel disappointed in them? Will they be made to feel inferior, perhaps isolated?
The irony is, through experiencing these challenges, young people actually become better equipped to steer themselves through those waters.
They will build up evidence that tells them ‘I can, and I’ll be OK’.
Other factors that can lead to a feeling of insecurity in a teenager include:
- Biological differences (e.g. health conditions or neurodevelopmental differences)
- Hormonal changes
- Attachment Style
- Culture, gender identification and sexual orientation and how these are perceived by those around your child
Insecure Teens: The Impact of Difficult Experiences
ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are those where a young person encounters an unpredictable or traumatic experience or distressing event, sometimes repeatedly.
Examples include parental or sibling loss or separation.
ACEs can sometimes lead to feelings of insecurity about day-to-day routines, and difficulty forming a healthy relationship with others.
The brain has already had one or more very difficult experience, so it tends to expect more negative outcomes and prepare for the worst.
ACEs can affect attachment style (the way a young person forms relationships and interacts with others).
A child who develops an insecure attachment style will generally have more trouble managing emotional connections with others. They may be more prone to separation anxiety.
Do not worry if your child is affected by any of these things. The best thing to do is gradually work on my 9 tips below, steadily and consistently.
Prioritise helping your child to feel safe and secure at home, and work on just one or two areas at a time.
Below are some of the symptoms of insecurity and anxiety you might observe in your teenager.
Symptoms of an Insecure Teenager
- A noticeable change in behaviour.
- Restlessness and difficulties sleeping.
- Panic attacks and mood swings.
- A loss or increase in appetite.
- Physical symptoms such as headaches or a stomach ache that comes and goes.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Withdrawing from things they usually enjoy.
- Fixation on potential threats.
- Nail biting or picking.
How To Tell If Your Insecure Teenager Needs Professional Help
The level of turbulence and doubts that teenagers have about themselves varies widely. How, and with what intensity feelings of insecurity and anxiety manifest themselves, will depend on a number of factors.
Fears and worries are a normal part of child development. Anxiety disorders occur when the intensity of the fear or worry is so high that it impacts on day to day functioning and well-being.
Sometimes teenagers will go on to experience mental health issues which may require professional help.
Your child’s GP will help you assess whether your teenager needs a referral to a mental health professional for more support.
- School Counsellor
- Clinical Psychologist
- Counsellor or Psychotherapist
- CBT Therapist
- Healthy Minds at NHS
- CAMHS at NHS
You can learn about the differences between these types of mental health professionals in this article: Child Therapist Information for Parents.
Understanding Your Insecure Teenager’s World
Yes, we were teenagers once! However, our own teenager’s world is very different to the one we experienced.
It’s inevitable that each new generation of teenagers will be shaped by societal, political, economic and environmental factors of the day.
There’s no denying that most teenagers’ lives are saturated with the use of mobile phone technology and social media (that’s a whole other blog!)
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Insecurity in Teenagers: The Impact of The Pandemic
The pandemic and recent world events have forced our children to adapt fast. Sudden change has resulted in a feeling of loss of control for many young children and young adults alike.
School pupils and college students have had their education disrupted and many young people have faced social isolation.
I’ve noticed in my counselling clinic teenagers describing a sudden and unexpected lack of confidence in trying to reintegrate into social situations and re-establish disconnected relationships.
In addition, they may have experienced anguish about their own safety and that of their family members, their best friends and their peers.
Insecure Teens: Empathy Vs Sympathy as a Parent
When trying to understand your teenager’s world and its challenges, empathy rather than sympathy is what we should strive to embody.
Sympathy comes from your own frame of reference and this may simply not be what your teenager wants to hear about, however helpful we think it might be!
They want to be and feel heard in the context of their life, their experience and have the space and time to breathe. Understanding and empathy can be achieved by trying to imagine how they’re feeling, essentially putting yourself in their shoes.
Insecure Teenagers: How to Put Yourself In Your Child’s Position?
- Talk with and listen to them (if they’re up for it) and foster open communication.
- Talk to other parents and share experiences and insights.
- Access parent talks from school if available.
- Understand and accept that there may be topics (such as intimate relationships) that your teen doesn’t want to discuss and that it’s OK.
Signs of an Insecure Teenager: When to Help
Noticing a feeling of insecurity and anxiety in a teenager can be a worry for parents. It’s difficult to know when it’s appropriate to be worried or concerned and when they should step in.
Phases of insecurity and anxiety are normal in teenagers and there is arguably some merit in allowing your child the space to take some risks and to test their own strengths and coping skills in challenging situations.
As mentioned earlier, most teenagers are reluctant to share their doubts with others, especially adults, which can make it hard to determine what’s going on for them.
Dr Lucy Russell, Founder of They are The Future, tells us that young people often believe they will feel insecure or anxious forever, because they don’t have the life experience to know that these difficult feelings do pass.
A teenager’s cognitive function is still developing, with teenage girls eventually reaching full “brain maturity” from around the age of 25 and boys a little later at 27 years old.
Helping an Insecure Teenager: Four Ways to Increase Connection With Your Teen
So, how can you support your teen to find ways to work through insecure thoughts and feelings, build self-confidence, foster resilience and ensure they forge healthy relationships with themselves and with others?
First of all ……
· NOTICE – Be alert to signs of change in your child’s moods, behaviours. You know your child best of all.
· TUNE-IN – Like a radio, try to tune in to their wavelength, what message are they trying to get across? What’s going on for them?
· LISTEN – Actively listen when they talk, vent, off-load or are silent. Strong or defencive reactions can often be symptomatic of something else that’s going on for them. Listen and talk without judgement or blame.
· ATTEND – Be really present, put aside what you’re doing and connect with what is going on for your child.
Below are ideas to explore in supporting your teenager – you may already be doing some of these. Find something that might work for you in the context of your own family.
Signs of an Insecure Teenager: 9 Parent Tips
- Help them set reasonable routines for meals, homework, quiet time, and bedtime. Routine helps us feel secure and safe.
- Ringfence time for connection with your child. Have chats, play games or walk in nature together. Let them choose something they’ll with you such as a yoga class or a movie.
- Try talking with your child in whatever format they prefer (in the car, via whatsapp, on a stroll around the block).
- Talk at times other than as a response to distress. When calm, your child will be more receptive to discussing problems and strategies. This can then set the stage for helping your child develop better ways to manage anxiety.
- Reduce stress if it is overwhelming your child at times. It’s unrealistic (and unhelpful) to eliminate stress completely. Children need to learn the skills to manage stress in adult life. However, you can support them by helping your child to feel safe and relaxed at home and try to limit conflict and arguments.
- Strengthen and allow growth in independence. This in turn will help to cultivate positive messages in your teenager’s capabilities and encourage resilience when there may be a lack of self-confidence. One way to foster this is to help them take small risks. For example, encourage your child to make a phone call, or ask a difficult question.
- Praise – tell your child how proud you are of them. Write them a note or send a text.
- Encourage self-praise and positive self-talk in your teenager by modelling it in yourself.
- Reassure your teenager they are not alone. They need to know they have a safe base to return to for support, as they grow in independence.
Insecurity in Teenagers: Summary
Remember, a teenager’s ability to understand and overcome self-doubt is a major part of growing up leading into early adulthood.
Their personality, self-view and strength of character can all play a part in how well they manage to navigate their lives in the modern world.
Recognising what might lead to insecurity and anxiety can help to eliminate distress.
Signs of an Insecure Teenager: Resources For You And Your Teen
Books are a great source of support and accessible ideas of how parents can understand a feeling of insecurity and anxiety in a teenager and what they can do (and should avoid doing!) in order to support them.
Take a look at Dr Lucy’s article called ‘Parenting Teenagers Books: A Psychologist’s Top 10 Picks’ for the best recommendations.
Help your teen build their self-esteem by reading our article: Teen Self-Esteem Activities, and downloading the accompanying teen workbook.
Take a look at our article, 34 Inspirational Quotes For Anxiety Sufferers.
Read our article: 10 Ways To Easily Motivate An Anxious Teen.
If you are considering therapy for your child read my article: Does Therapy Help With Anxiety?
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019.
Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Are you the parent of a 5-17 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.