Project work: Strategies for program leaders to help and support teens overcome anxiety

Orson, C. N., & Larson, R. W. (2020). Helping Teens Overcome Anxiety Episodes in Project Work: The Power of Reframing. Journal of Adolescent Research, 0743558420913480.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Some teenagers can experience intense anxiety whenever they encounter overwhelming challenges
  • This study aims to understand how experienced program leaders help and support youths in overcoming anxiety
  • Three strategies were identified from the qualitative data
    • Leaders:
      • helped youth gain a new perspective on how capable they are
      • provided a framework for youth to better understand and control challenges they encounter
      • emphasized the importance of not giving up, despite how alarming and fraught anxiety can be (e.g. discuss with youth about why they feel anxious & help them reframe their emotions)
  • Findings indicate that having sensitive conversations with youths can help them better understand and control anxiety, as well as gain a new perspective on aligning challenges to their skills 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Overwhelming challenges in youth program projects (e.g., arts, leadership, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM]) can create intense anxiety for adolescents that disrupts engagement in their work. This study examines how experienced program leaders respond to these episodes to help youth overcome anxiety. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 27 veteran leaders from high-quality youth programs about their experiences with these situations. Programs primarily served Latinx, African American, and European American youth (ages 11–18). We utilized grounded theory analysis to examine leaders’ descriptions of the situations, their strategies, and the goals of those strategies. Leaders’ most frequent response was reframing—providing youth new cognitive frames to understand anxiety-eliciting situations, reduce anxiety, and restore motivation. We identified three types of reframing strategies. First, reframing youth’s understanding of their abilities entailed providing youth new perspectives for enhancing their conceptions of their competencies in the work. Second, reframing youth’s understanding of challenge involved suggesting new frameworks for youth to assess and control work challenges. Third, reframing emotion involved helping youth understand anxiety as normal and as a tool for problem-solving. The findings also suggest these strategies help youth learn skills for managing situations that create anxiety in future work.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Anxiety can be a significant problem that disrupts youth’s motivation and threatens youth’s completion of projects. The anxiety episodes youth experience in projects are partly due to encounters with difficult tasks, setbacks, and unknowns in their work (Larson, McGovern, & Orson, 2019). The anxiety appears to be exacerbated by subjective processes: exaggerated fears of failure, self-deprecating “inner voices,” social comparisons, and unrealistic goals. The objective of this exploratory study was to identify how experienced youth program leaders help teens overcome these anxiety episodes. We studied retrospective accounts from 27 veteran program leaders supervising youth-led projects. Analysis of these accounts suggests effective strategies that leaders employ. In the discussion section, we review these strategies, discuss what makes them effective in addressing anxiety episodes, and suggest how they may support youth’s learning of skills for self-management of challenging work.

A central finding was that leaders’ main strategy for assisting youth was “reframing”—providing youth with new perspectives for understanding the anxiety and gaining control over it. Reframing appeared to occur within two-way conversations that included leaders’ listening to youth’s experiences, diagnosing its sources, and responding accordingly. Reframing entailed offering youth knowledgeable frameworks and conceptual tools to help them reinterpret how they viewed their situation. Leaders gave youth perspectives for understanding their work in more useful ways: that were evidence-based, employed craft knowledge, and provided new means to evaluate their skills and the challenges in the work. In most cases, these perspectives helped youth overcome their anxiety.

By coaching youth on the use of these frameworks, we further suggest, leaders were helping them practice and learn skills to regulate their emotion and motivation in complex work. Leaders were providing assistance that leveraged adolescents’ new executive capacities for conceptualizing abstract emotional processes and for integrating multi-dimensional representations of the self and complex situations (Dumontheil, 2014; Nook et al., 2018; Pasupathi & McLean, 2010). Reframing by leaders helped at least some youth learn to reframe for themselves. As already described, Tyler’s reframing conversation with Allie helped her overcome her anxiety about her film and complete it. She reported learning from the experience that “next time . . . I’ll be able to control it, and I won’t be too nervous.” Some leaders indicated that their coaching helped youth learn skills to manage anxiety and reengage with their work. Given limits on these findings, further evaluation and testing is needed.


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