Anxiety and Your Teen – Black and White Thinking

Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes. Anxiety can be feelings of uneasiness, worry, nervousness, or even dread. It’s natural and healthy for your teen to experience some anxiety at different times. Sometimes, anxiety can even be motivating; like if it encourages your teen to study for that science test! But teens can also experience unhealthy and troublesome anxiety. As a teen experiencing new responsibilities, friendships, and changes, new feelings of anxiety can also arise. When anxiety is affecting your teen’s daily life and happiness, this might indicate a problem. As a parent, you can help your teen manage those anxious feelings by identifying them, normalizing them, and being open to talking about them.

Anxiety is very common. It is also preventable and manageable as you learn to understand how it affects you as an individual. How your teen perceives and reacts to things that happen to him will directly affect his level of anxiety. One way of thinking and responding to events that increases anxiety levels is called “all or nothing” thinking, or “black and white” thinking.

                                                        What is black and white thinking?

“Black and white” thinking, or “all or nothing” thinking, occurs when an individual looks at thing as completely one way or another, with limited thinking or insight about all the possibilities in the middle. It looks at the extremes, without considering the middle area and all of those shades of gray. This can raise anxiety because it is not realistic to expect things to occur in this way. For example, it creates anxiety when a teen expects perfect grades from himself and considers himself to be a failure when that doesn’t happen. This way of thinking looks at two extremes, without considering the possibility that a B on that science test is just a reflection of one grade rather than an indication that one is a failure.

What does reality look like?

Talking with your teen about what reality looks like between those extreme black and white areas can help her to process those feelings and looks at more realistic expectations. For example, when your teen is disappointed that she didn’t win first place at her track meet, allow her to express those feelings. But if she’s feeling like she’s a horrible athlete because of one event or track meet, help her to look at the other possibilities as well. Look out for words that come up in the way your teen talks about himself. Words like always, never, impossible, perfect, and failure, might indicate your teen is missing those shades of gray.

Most things in life are not all black or all white but come in many shades of gray. Naming all of these possibilities in the middle and having open, honest conversations about all this middle area is a great tool to prevent and manage anxiety. By recognizing that situations are not “all or nothing”, some of the pressure is lifted as it normalizes many other outcomes. Challenge yourself and your teen this week to examine the way you’re thinking and consider those shades of gray!
Amanda Regalia, M.A. is a marriage and family counselor and clinician for The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. Amanda specializes in working with families and children ages 5 and up. She is passionate about helping people to create practical solutions that support them in achieving their goals and improving their relationships and life.

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