Anxiety is better recognised and understood than ever before, but for parents of teenagers struggling with anxiety it can still be hard to know how to help. One great way is to encourage them to express themselves via writing.
Bestselling parenting book author Michael Grose shares with us some practical ways writing can help alleviate anxiety for teenagers.
Keep it voluntary
Encouraging teenagers to write about something they care about will mean that writing can alleviate anxiety rather than adding to it.
“When you're anxious, you have this laser beam focus on yourself,” Michael says. “Writing helps teenagers connect them to something bigger than them, it takes them out of their own world and out of their own thoughts.”
Making sure it remains a voluntary, enjoyable thing is paramount, and he suggests parents encourage teenagers to write whatever they want. Whether it’s creative fiction, poetry or nonfiction, the act of thinking about constructing a piece of writing will help teenagers get outside of their own heads and be reflective.
“It’s writing for enjoyment. Is there something you could be writing, are you writing a novel? Can you write for your school newspaper? Can you blog about an issue which is worrying you and be part of a movement?
“When you become very anxious your world becomes small. And what we want to do is make your world a little bit bigger.”
Think it through
Michael says writing helps reduce anxiety in two key ways. Firstly, it helps clarify your thoughts.
“Writing reduces anxiety because it clarifies what you're worrying about and what's confusing,” he says.
“Whatever it is, it could be worrying about ‘I've got an exam coming up'. It's really hard to learn if all you know before you're worrying about is just that exam and focus on that. The notion of writing broadens your focus, broadens that focus away from just that one thing that's worrying you.”
Secondly, writing provides physiological assistance to enable you to feel less anxious. The physical impact of sitting down to write is important.
“It has a calming effect, it lowers the heart rate and relaxes you, so when you sit and write for a while the actual sort of action of it will calm you down. You're thinking things through. Your heart rate will lower, your breathing changes as well. And it tends to just relax you, and you move into that sort of writing mode.”
Anxious teenagers can benefit greatly from journalling, or keeping a diary, Michael says.
“It's something that girls have often done for years and years and years, that’s a great clarifier and a great processor,” he says. “As someone who writes a lot, I find that a really useful thing as well. I'll wake up one morning and have a million thoughts going through my head, and sometimes I'll just write, get the thoughts out.”
Some teenagers will be happiest writing in an unstructured way and just getting it out onto the page. For others, some sort of framework for that journalling can be helpful.
Michael says a gratitude journal, where you write down three things you’re grateful for every day, is an example of that sort of structure. Journals can be bought with this formatting already in place, or it can be easily written into a blank notebook.
Make a list
Like diary-keeping, making lists is a tool used by plenty of teenagers and adults to help keep on top of work and anxiety. Getting that list down on paper can help stop people from getting overwhelmed, Michael says, and there are strategies you can use to make them even more helpful.
“You can apply a little discipline, you can go ‘I've got ten things to do today, but I’ve only really got time to do six, so what are the top six.’”
Beyond just listing tasks, listing feelings can also help anxious teenagers get back in control. Michael uses the Mood Meter app which gives you options to select how you’re feeling, and the same strategies can be used for teenagers to write down their emotions.
“You stop and go ‘how am I feeling right now’ and you put down four or five words – confused, worried, really happy,” he says. “From that list of three words you go, I'm happy that I was chosen for the sporting event. I'm confused because I'm not sure why I was chosen. And I'm nervous because I've now got to do well.
“What we often do with our feelings is we get stuck because there's multiple feelings. Listing those down, if you can stop and take a breath and just close your eyes and go into a little space, then that helps you to, again, clarify what's going on inside.”
Bestselling author Michael Grose is the author of nine books for parents, including Anxious Kids: How children can turn their anxiety into resilience, which he wrote with Dr Jodi Richardson.
If your teenager is keen to write and could benefit from expert support and teaching, our Teenage Creative Writers’ Program will give them the tools and techniques they need to help them blossom as a writer.