How to help your anxious teen in the face of constant disaster news?

Challenging Times

Originally published on September 19, 2020 in Greenwich Sentinel

Like many teenagers, Jeremy Lancaster, age 17, took advantage of the early weeks of quarantine. Instead of scrambling to finish homework, cramming for tests and navigating hallway jiu jitsu with his eleventh-grade peers, Jeremy began his cherished summer routine — a full two months early.

“Even though I was stuck at home, I could basically do what I wanted during the day and still keep up with all my friends on TikTok,” Jeremy laughs.

But as summer wore on, and the realization set in that distance learning would return in the Fall, his attitude shifted. In fact, much of his daily attention has become consumed with the endless news cycle of impending doom. For Jeremy, this has started to overwhelm his day-to-day ability to function.

With 80% of Americans owning a smartphone, it is hard for anyone to turn down the volume on the constant warnings about the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest, and political outrage du jour. “There is an emergency every time I look at my phone,” Jeremy shrugs.

An Aug 14th ​CDC report​ found 30.9 percent of young adults said they had symptoms of anxiety  or depression. Even more distressing, the study found that one in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they’ve considered suicide in the past month ​because​ of the pandemic.

As parents, this study brings into sharp relief how a constant barrage of disaster news can exacerbate an already tense situation for many teens. While anyone can be susceptible to catastrophic thinking​, or unintentionally fixating on worst possible outcomes, teens are particularly vulnerable.

Our role as parents is to help our children feel safe, yet informed; yet how exactly do we do this when real threat is streaming live in ALL CAPS through the firehose of social media? Here are three parenting strategies proven to be effective for teens.

Consume News Together

Digesting global news can seem overwhelming because we often feel incapable of responding in a  meaningful way.​ ​One of the most effective responses is to directly reduce how much news your  child consumes, and what they access. With teens, consider avoiding the sensational news outlets, and discuss how boundaries can serve their well being.

For instance, setting reasonable time limits and ensuring that devices are turned off before  bedtime are extremely helpful for kids of all ages. Take an active approach and text them  appropriate articles you are encountering. Make opportunities to discuss events together. This creates a space for you to discover what your child already knows, assess how they are coping, and  keep the conversation line open.

Care, But Do Not “Fix” 

As you make time to ask questions and learn about your teen’s state of mind, it can be tempting to promote your own personal viewpoints. After all, you most likely have a more mature  understanding of the different factors at play. Resist the urge. Your efforts can easily be  misinterpreted by your child as “there is something wrong with me.” Instead, work to build trust  and open-mindedness by making your child feel heard and understood. Regularly communicate  that you are available for them and interested in whatever they want to talk about.

See Both Sides and Take Action 

If an event is not being presented fairly, spend some time with your child looking for opposing  angles. Help your child realize the importance of looking at different perspectives, even if you  disagree with them. Your primary goal is to guide them away from passive despair. Brainstorm  together – are there ways we can get involved locally? Is it possible to turn this troubling news into a positive good for their community? Even when global issues seem unsolvable, teaching your child to take small steps toward a positive cause, can help them to feel less vulnerable and more hopeful.

Since the pace of unsettling news shows no sign of abating anytime soon, developing these  communication practices are more important now than ever​.

About Daniel Villiers, Ph.D.

One of the nation’s leading interventionists, Dr. Dan Villiers has educated, motivated, and inspired more than 800 families to pursue treatment for their children with acute anxiety, OCD and trauma. At the forefront of developing specialized anxiety treatment programs for school-aged children, Dr. Villiers co-founded the Anxiety Institute, a Greenwich-based organization offering outpatient and intensive day treatment for adolescents and young adults.

About the Author

Daniel Villiers, PhD


Dr. Dan brings over ten years of experience working with children, adolescents, young adults and families in a range of clinical and educational settings.

“My personal knowledge and experience of anxiety and fear, as a victim and as a conqueror, has gifted me the valuable asset of emotional intelligence. Knowledge and experience that will give me the empathy to connect with others and the grit to overcome adversity.”

Dr. Daniel Villiers

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