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The Case For Low-Tech Anxiety Management For Teens

Apr17

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We are—how shall I put this?—a family of tightly-wound humans. We have big feelings and perpetual, looming worries (whether real or imagined), and one of my biggest sources of angst is that my darling teenaged stressed-out apples didn’t fall far from the Chicken Little tree. Ahem. It’s hard to watch your child struggle under any circumstance, of course. But when you watch them struggle the same sorts of way that you struggle, well, that’s a whole extra level of ouch, right there.

[A quick sidebar PSA before we get into the rest of this: Anxiety is not a joke, no matter how many times the kids and I crack that really, we have CDO (like OCD, but with all the letters in alphabetical order, as they should be). If your child is anxious to the point where it's interfering with everyday life, please seek assistance. No one should have to live with unabated fear and worry. Treatment is available, effective, and can vastly improve quality of life.]

So the thing is, we cope with some heightened stress reactions, over here. Both of my teenagers and I are sensitive, delicate flowers. (Well, my son says he’s a delicate weed. But you get the point.) All of us have found ways to cope with this particular issue. I’m a big believer in therapy and I’m also a big believer in the judicious use of psychotropic medication. Heck, I’m also a believer in yoga and herbs and guided imagery and anything, really, that helps a person to feel more in control of her life and emotions. Big-picture-wise, we’ve got this. We have great support teams in place.

The thing about anxiety-prone folks, though, is that we tend to manage, rather than cure. And the thing about teenagers is that their lives are full of stress under the best of circumstances, but they’re also under a huge amount of peer pressure to just keep going and go with the flow. It would be weird to step out and meditate, I’m guessing. A stress-reliever isn’t going to be terribly effective if utilizing it causes you to come under further peer scrutiny. The best bet for a teen is something they can just slide into their lives right under the radar.

Enter… busy hands.

In a world of endless screens and assorted electronics, the answer is to kick it old-school. Crafting—in its various incarnations—keeps hands busy and soothes a racing brain. It requires some attention (but not a lot), can be done nearly anywhere, and seems to hit that sweet spot where busy, overstimulated minds can just kind of idle for a bit. And because most of these things can be done while doing something else, no one has to know it’s about decompressing. Your teens’ friends will just think they’re kind of crafty.

Idea #1: Origami

It started, for us, with origami. The kids weren’t even teens yet when they received some how-to books and my life started to fill up with tiny paper birds and cubes. After the initial obsession, they stopped for a while, and then one day I came upon my youngest making an army of tiny penguins. “What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I like making penguins,” he said. “It makes me feel calm.” This was an interesting insight to hear him share, and not just because he’s autistic and any self-observation on his part tends to warrant a celebratory parade. He said it made him feel calm, which baffled me, initially, because I’ve tried to do origami and everything I make ends up looking like a used Kleenex (and I can assure you that “calm” is not the word I would use to describe my process). I sat and watched him, and he did appear to be feeling quite Zen, making fold after fold, and adding each new penguin to his growing waddle. It was methodical. It was predictable. There was an end product. I began to understand why it appealed to him.

It’s possible that I made a grand show of gushing over his creations, at various points, until his sister picked her origami book back up and got back into it, herself. She favors multicolored pinwheels, and can (and does) make them out of just about any type of paper she can find; I’m pretty sure she made me one out of a fast food sandwich wrapper, once. She’s a taut wire of nervous energy, my girl, and with a few pieces of paper to fold, I can watch her relax into the creases, channeling that laser-beam focus into something mundane and pliable.

Idea #2: Knitting

Next, my son moved on to knitting. Yes. Hey, knitting is experiencing quite the resurgence amongst young adults, both female and male. (Thanks, hipsters!) For him it’s about the act rather than the product, so he sticks with spool knitting rather than actual needles. All this yields is a woven “snake,” which could then be made into various things, I suppose, but he doesn’t care. It’s about the feel of the yarn in his fingers, the wrapping of stitches, the mindlessness of it. His peers no longer see him sitting there working his yarn as any stranger than a kid tapping a pencil. It’s just what he does.

Ideas #3 & #4: Beading & Sewing

My daughter tried to learn to knit, but it never really clicked for her. Instead, she turned to beading, next. Keychains! Jewelry! And from there she moved on to sewing. She’ll browse Etsy—on the hunt for cute little felted creatures or pouches to hold important things—then she’ll disappear into her room. Later, she’ll reappear with a decent facsimile she created from memory, hand-sewn in her careful stitching. She keeps some of her creations and gives others away. It’s the process of making that’s important for her. This kid got through several months at a new school, far from home, by taking her sewing to the library and coaxing thread along for a while after lunch every day. She has a sewing machine now and quilting is on the horizon. (Maybe she can make a quilt that can serve as a backdrop for the origami penguin army.)

Paper, fabric, thread, ink—it doen’t matter what it is. Crafting keeps their hands busy and their brains just-occupied-enough. Think of it as a break from technology and stress. It’s self-regulation disguised as a hobby. Perhaps best of all, it means they have to put down their phones and stop texting. (Can I get an “Amen!”?)

About the author

Mir Kamin

http://wouldashoulda.com/
Mir Kamin began writing about her life online nearly a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she's become one of those people who talks to her dog in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she's continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she's bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.


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29 Responses to “The Case For Low-Tech Anxiety Management For Teens”

  1. Jean Apr 17 at 12:07 pm Reply Reply

    Mir, I am not yet a parent of a teen, my son just turned 9. But I am avidly reading your articles here and your blog all the time. My son has both anxiety and PDD-NOS. We aren’t treating right now with medication because he seems to be managing the anxiety with all of his different therapies and techniques that we have given him.

    These articles about teenagers are great, as I frequently worry about the teenage years. and of course it is spelled CDO as I too suffer from a bit of that.

  2. Jill Apr 17 at 12:09 pm Reply Reply

    I’m not a teenager, but about a year ago, I started taking a wheel-throwing pottery class. It is definitely a huge stress-reliever. It’s physical, it’s challenging – in a good way, and it gives me a feeling of satisfaction and pride. There are quite a few teenagers that come into the studio to do wheel throwing or handbuilding classes. I would recommend it in a heartbeat!

  3. My Kids Mom Apr 17 at 12:24 pm Reply Reply

    My kids found origami on their own for the same purpose. “I’m not allowed to play when I finish my work but if I use school paper I can make origami and no one knows” The other kid is making origami to sell in class for “market day” (at the end of their economics unit) because he “has a desk full of it anyway.” It keeps their hands busy and out of trouble at school as well.

  4. My son has made paper guns … with moving parts … after watching a “how to” video on YouTube … that’s the same, right?!

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Apr 17 at 1:00 pm Reply Reply

      Wellllll that could potentially lead to more anxiety if he’s doing that at school and they have rules about those sorts of things…. (That’s a whole ‘nother issue!)

  5. Katie K. Apr 17 at 1:01 pm Reply Reply

    My lovely 14 year old daughter finds keeping her hands busy to be very relaxing (I have a ton of pot holders she made on one of those plastic looms!) but even more so if she listens to a book on CD or on her Kindle as she does it.  I also sometimes give her a basket of towels to fold, which is a win-win.  

  6. Diane Apr 17 at 1:07 pm Reply Reply

    Quilting is my anxiety outlet – hand, machine…anything to do with fondling fabric. Chickie is welcome to contact me any time with questions.

    LOVE that Monkey is knitting, even just for the process rather than results. And spool knitting is so very portable. I can see Chickie making more fast-food wrapper pinwheels, and using them to support a crusade for less waste, more “recylcing”.

  7. RuthWells Apr 17 at 1:12 pm Reply Reply

    Dude! Gardening! Pulling weeds is very therapeutic.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Apr 17 at 1:13 pm Reply Reply

      That’s MY anxiety-buster! The kids don’t agree that it’s soothing for some reason. Hmph.

      • Cara Apr 17 at 4:43 pm Reply Reply

        My mom comes to my house to weed for that reason. It stresses me out!

  8. jetmom4 Apr 17 at 1:12 pm Reply Reply

    amen

  9. Patricia Apr 17 at 1:19 pm Reply Reply

    These tools all work for me too as an adult! We are not all inherently crafty in my house either, but we like making and doing…the process is more important than the end result much of the time.

    I also find a lot of zen time with myself and my daughter painting our fingers and toes. The attention to detail and the forced time to sit and let it all dry is proving a calm time, and lets me chat with my 7-year old while she has to sit still just a little bit.

  10. Arnebya Apr 17 at 2:28 pm Reply Reply

    You’re right; these definitely work for adults too. My choice is sewing. And nope, I cannot sew worth a lick, but it is a quiet, soothing activity from which no one can expect new pants. My oldest does the thin strips of plastic, molding them into different shapes. She calls it gimp but I really want there to be (REALLY) a different word for it.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Apr 17 at 4:24 pm Reply Reply

      My kids call it lanyard-making but when I was a kid at summer camp, we called it boondoggle! Still my favorite word for it.

      • Jessica Apr 18 at 8:49 am Reply Reply

        Giiiimp!!!  When I was in grade….6???  Which was literally 20 years ago or something horrific like that, we also called it Gimp. Looking back on it, I don’t know how my teachers kept a straight face.  As I teach that grade now, I thought it had gone away since I don’t see it.  But I do see regular friendship bracelets (and am the proud owner of some made for me by my students) which is a simplified form of macrame, which I believe should take it’s rightful place next to the other hipster arts.
        I grew up in a very crafty family, and my mom was always doing something with her hands.  There are lots and lots of kid friendly craft sets you can get.  I remember some hook rug thingy, and lots of beading.  There’s lots you can find just by googling ‘Crafts for Kids’.  Can’t wait to get into all that but I have to wait a few more years!

  11. Brenda Apr 17 at 2:43 pm Reply Reply

    I have long been a crafter. I typically do it while I watch TV, because then I feel productive, but the mostly mindless busywork really is very soothing. When I was in the hospital outpatient mental health program, I spend lots of time in group therapy knitting. I got feedback from other people that it was as soothing for them to watch me as it was for me to actually knit. For awhile I solved a rubix cube over and over. I like to have something to keep my hands occupied, like a slinky or a paperclip that I bend and unbend, but knitting and crocheting are probably the most rewarding because I actually have something to show once I’m done.

  12. el-e-e Apr 17 at 2:49 pm Reply Reply

    OMG, I hadn’t thought about spool knitting in ages. I can’t remember when or how my friends and I used to do it – around the same time as friendship bracelets, I guess, but I wish I still had my little wooden spool! Thx for the memory jolt!

    My son likes origami, too. Never thought of it as calming for him, but maybe it is. :)

  13. Jennifer Apr 17 at 3:00 pm Reply Reply

    I only took up crochet and knitting (and cross-stitch, and sewing, and spinning…) as an adult, but I really wish someone had suggested it when I was younger!  I’ve always had trouble with anxiety and, well, my brain spinning faster than average, I suppose, and all I had to show for it was bad poetry and colossal doodles!  My toddler is already a huge fan of coloring, and loves to get into my yarn, so I’m hoping fostering her craftiness can help her stay grounded (whether or not she ends up with my wiring!).

  14. Kathryn Apr 17 at 5:14 pm Reply Reply

    Anyone have any suggestions that would work for a 6 year old? His anxiety manifests generally as anger and acting out, and I’d really like to have something else to channel him into. We’re just starting to make progress on him recognizing what he’s feeling and verbalizing it, but I think he’d benefit from having something to do with his hands – other than hit people, of course.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Apr 17 at 10:43 pm Reply Reply

      Might he like the spool knitting, Kathryn? That’s a pretty easy/portable option, and doesn’t require as much dexterity as origami.

  15. jill Apr 17 at 7:37 pm Reply Reply

    I used to doodle in class – not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because it helped me to calm down enough to focus on just one thing. I tend to use this with my kids, too. The oldest is anxious and the second one is very active. Right now they spend a lot of time drawing and lego building to process things. Crafts will be great when they are older, I think.

  16. Sara Apr 17 at 9:12 pm Reply Reply

    A few years ago I rediscovered coloring. I’ll buy one of those higher end coloring books for kids with the thick pages and color while listening to music. It is so calming for me and it’s still pretty fun, too.

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Apr 17 at 10:44 pm Reply Reply

      I love this SO MUCH. Why do we stop coloring??

    • Carrie Apr 18 at 1:30 pm Reply Reply

      After too many hours spent coloring Barbie (yick!) and other 6 year old girl things, I found a few adult coloring books on Amazon – with themes like mandalas, art-nouveau patterns, decorative tiles and paisley, they have very detailed designs and the end results are beautiful.  As it turns out, my daughter prefers to color them over her coloring books, too!

      • LBowden Apr 21 at 8:06 pm Reply Reply

        In college I had to have a year out when suffering with CFS and when too tired to read or watch TV I folded hundreds of paper cranes out of old issues of national geographic. The repetition, productivity and creativity gave me real contentment.
        Sadly I wasn’t a natural knitter, quilter or bonsai tree cultivator but found origami quietly therapeutic – love the colouring idea! :)

  17. Anne Apr 18 at 6:45 am Reply Reply

    Your son could try this. 

    http://www.amazon.com/Kumihimo-Starter-Kit-KumiLoom-Bobbins/dp/B001DQV8NS

    It is similar to spool knitting but might be more easily adapted for functional use. Bracelets, dog collar, leash, necklace etc. 

  18. Sarah Apr 18 at 5:36 pm Reply Reply

    Yes, yes, yes!

    I was a tiny bit disappointed that you didn’t list anything that I’m not doing already – but crafts are great. If chickadee is interested in quilting, she should also try doodling (with a ruler) on graph paper. I love quilting and a pad of paper with a few colours is much more portable for meetings and such.

    My math brain loves all the calculating and I’ve done “quilt design” as a class project with grade one through eight. Origami is a great way to figit quietly too.

  19. ElleB Apr 22 at 3:38 pm Reply Reply

    It’s not exactly crafting, but I have several students (I teach high school) who doodle, specifically in highly repetitive patterns…like polynesian tattoos.  I also quite like the Wreck this Journal series as a starting point for distracting activities.

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    [...] first post (you people have strong opinions about marching band!), this week on Alphamom I’m suggesting low-tech solutions for teens managing anxiety. (Psssst! They work for adults, [...]

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