Tackling Teen Anxiety
A Fremont native’s new book helps parents of teens struggling with anxiety.
When he was 13, Jon Patrick Hatcher began cutting himself, and he wrestled with years of substance abuse and panic attacks. As his parents struggled to understand him, they decided their son would benefit from professional help. Talk therapy—and Hatcher’s instinctive sense of humor—were key to helping him accept, acknowledge, and manage his anxiety.
Decades later, Hatcher, who got an M.A. from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, met Thomas McDonagh, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in San Francisco. It was a perfect matchup that led to their new book, 101 Ways to Conquer Teen Anxiety: Simple Tips, Techniques, and Strategies for Overcoming Anxiety, Worry, and Panic Attacks.
Hatcher writes with a touch of humor, a tool he still uses to combat the anxiety he will never completely eliminate. We talked to the Fremont-raised author about his new book, why talk therapy is so effective, and practical things parents can do—and not do—to help their teenagers struggling with anxiety.
Q: Why did you write 101 Ways?
A: You can survive is really my message. If you look at the most brilliant minds on the planet, people like Einstein, they suffer a double-edged sword of depression and anxiety. The premise I want to get out is that it’s OK: Anxiety doesn’t define the rest of your life, and there are therapies designed to get you through it. If this reaches one kid out there and helps [him or her], that’s my mission.
Q: What should parents know about teen anxiety?
A: When teens react in an anxious state, they perceive the world in a vastly different, threatening way. A teen might act like a ferocious animal. If they self-
medicate, that might add to the out-of-control impression. What works isn’t telling a teen to calm down; it’s empathy and diplomacy that work best.
Q: What are some things parents can do to help their kids cope with anxiety?
A: Pay close attention to your [children’s] symptoms and what they might be telling you, while not discounting their feelings. Remind your [teens] that anxiety is what they’re feeling and not who they are. Keep in mind that anxiety is not an indicator of poor parenting. Anxiety disorders affect over 25 percent of all teens. Try to keep your fears to yourself and present a positive—or at least neutral—assessment and attitude of the situation. Consider adding some humor where you’re able. Humor is proven to help us deal with disappointments and uncertainties.
Model positive behavior and good self-care. If you take care of yourself, your child will learn that self-care is an important facet. Promote good sleep. A lack of sleep alone can lead to problematic anxiety. Help them get into a routine that prepares them for relaxation. This can include simple meditative breathing exercises or guided meditations. After asking them to share their fears and anxieties, prompt them to problem solve what is causing them anxiety, and help them to develop an actionable plan to counter their distress. Once you have implemented some of the aforementioned, keep the momentum [going]. Only through repetition of anxiety management techniques will your child learn how to counter and manage future stressful scenarios or periods of anxiety—particularly if the anxiety is long-term or chronic.
Q: What should parents not do?
A: Avoid making the problem worse: If parents haven’t had anxiety themselves, they might unintentionally create more anxiety by telling their teen that there’s dangerous stuff out there. Don’t overreact to teen drama. Remember, the teen brain is undergoing constant change. Offer empathy and help from a mental health professional.
Q: Why did you use humor in this book, and in what ways do you find humor useful—or even necessary?
A: The most successful, inadvertent coping technique I developed to alleviate anxiety in my own life is by sourcing the humor in the angst. That said, it definitely does not take away from the serious nature of the subject. Nor does it trivialize anyone’s suffering. It simply makes the material more approachable and relatable.
Q: How can teens avoid becoming overwhelmed?
A: The media show dramatic situations; news headlines make it seem like the world is falling apart; social media is like a mental filter that causes misperception. [Limit] time spent on social media platforms. Start with creating phone-free times. Parents might consider spending time offering their children specific alternatives to daily social media use that include school- or community-based sports, academic and social clubs, pursuing creative or artistic interests, and even volunteering. Engaging in talk therapy with a licensed psychologist [is also] important for managing extreme anxiety.
Q: What are your thoughts on medicating kids who suffer from anxiety versus using talk therapy?
A: I do feel we’re overmedicating kids. Parents [often] demand it, physicians feel put on the spot, and teens aren’t getting the skills they need in therapy. That said, there’s definitely a place for medication in chronic anxiety and depression—especially if a teen talks of suicide and practices self-harm. A pill is easy, and the effect is quicker than acquiring the skills of therapy. But the skills are going to last longer and have fewer side effects. I emphasize therapies and say always bring in a medical professional for medication and a licensed psychologist for mental health support.
Q: Therapy can be effective in managing teen stress, but what can we do about the stigma attached to mental health issues like depression and anxiety?
A: We’ve come a long way, but kids are still bullied, mental health is played down, and kids are told they’re flawed. Cutbacks in programs to help people who need mental health support have made it worse. A lot of people play down the suffering of any mental illness. The brain is an organ like any part of the human body. We don’t say the person with diabetes suffers insulin shock on purpose. We have to have more empathy.
Q: What other types of therapies have you found to be the most helpful?
A: Evidence-based therapies that are the most researched and effective that helped me are cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. Cognitive breaks down anxiety into thoughts, behaviors, and physical symptoms. It involves identifying and disputing irrational thoughts. Dialectical builds on the foundation of cognitive to help enhance it’s effectiveness and address specific concerns.
Q: What should a teen experiencing extreme anxiety do immediately?
A: Go to an adult to ask for help. If teens feel different, if they think bad thoughts and don’t know why, they need to talk to an adult who is close. For immediate relief, they should use the four-by-four-by-four breathing technique recommended in my book. [Breathe in for four seconds; hold for four seconds; breathe out for four seconds. Do it four times.] It is clinically proven to calm the body. .