Teenager with Free-Floating Anxiety

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 16-year-old girl who is currently having problems with self-esteem. I have a hard time trying to be independent, but I know I need to be since I’m growing up.

I’m trying my best to be a grownup, but my parents won’t let me. They won’t let me go to the mall alone or attend gym on my own, and its creating my habit of always being dependent on someone whenever I do something. Also, I can’t go to public places alone because my mind is filled with things they tell me, like, someone might kidnap me, rob me, kill me, or even rape me! I’m sick of it and really need help.

I’m scared to sleep alone in my bedroom, so I sleep with my parents every night. I’m so confused with myself, and our family is messed up. I don’t talk to my siblings anymore because we’re not on good terms. My parents don’t really pay attention to my needs, since they are always busy fighting; I think they might get a divorce.

I’ve been wanting to see a therapist, but I don’t want to tell my parents that I need one, because we’re not that close and we’re not open to each other about our feelings. I’m sure they don’t think that I need it.

Psychologist’s Reply

One of the hardest parts of being a teenager is finding ways to be independent while still having the safety net of parents and other support systems to help when needed. Parents sometimes have a difficult time shifting from the necessary supervision and monitoring of younger children, to helping teenagers learn to make safe decisions on their own. Psychologists have found that the laws of physics seem to also apply to families in motion: although the ‘center-seeking‘ (centripetal) force is important early on when children are young, parents must begin to shift to the ‘center-leaving‘ (centrifugal) force that is necessary to empower teenagers to become functional adults.

When there is significant stress in a family, such as parents’ fighting or the threat of divorce, it can actually create more of the ‘center-seeking’ pull. Sometimes, if the parents’ relationship is unstable, they will unknowingly pull a child in closer to manage the anxiety of their own uncertainty about their adult relationship. It sounds as if you may have been pulled into your parents’ relationship both emotionally and physically: by having you in their bed, they don’t have to deal with each other. They may unknowingly be displacing much of their anxiety onto you, which, as you recognize, is really unhealthy for you (and unfair, too).

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Having some anxiety is normal and helps us along in life. It’s the feeling you get when you know a school assignment is due or a test is coming, for which you need to prepare. The anxiety helps motivate you to take the necessary steps to complete the task. Similarly, some anxiety about the world around us serves to help us make better decisions to keep ourselves safe. Your parents are right to be concerned about your safety, but perhaps aren’t sure how to help you evaluate risk, make action plans, and navigate situations more independently. When we are worried about everything around us and have few resources to help us learn to cope with the worry, we often have something psychologists call ‘free-floating anxiety.’ This kind of anxiety is not helpful, and does not mobilize us to act. The good news, however, is that coping skills to better manage anxiety are easy to learn and practice, with a good support system in place.

I think you are on the right track by reaching out to resources outside your family for help. Perhaps there is a trusted teacher you have at school, a school counselor or school psychologist with whom you could visit? That would be a good place to start. They will listen to you in a way that your parents can’t right now, and may have some solutions or next steps for you to try. You might also ask one of your parents (whomever is easiest to approach) if they would be willing to find a family therapist for all of you to see together. You may be the one who helps your family learn to communicate more effectively with each other. By recognizing how difficult things are in your family and by asking for help, you have already demonstrated remarkable independence! Keep going — your efforts may make a difference.

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