As a parent, you loved your child first. You raised them, taught them right from wrong, and you’d do anything for them. But what happens when you don’t actually know what to do?
Children are not immune to the perils of mental health issues, and research shows that over 30% of adolescents will struggle with an anxiety disorder by age 18. As a parent, understanding the nuances of anxiety in teens can help you better support your child during such a vulnerable time. Let’s get into what you need to know.
Educate Yourself On Anxiety And Teenagers
When you think of adolescence, what images come to mind? Do you picture awkward first kisses and learning how to drive? Or do you imagine the panic of college applications, the climbing rates of cyberbullying, and the immense pressure from coaches, teachers, and even parents like yourself?
Make no mistake. Being a teenager is hard!
Everyone experiences anxiety at times, but anxiety disorders extend beyond the ebb-and-flow of anxious feelings. Likewise, anxiety isn’t the same as stress. It isn’t just feeling overwhelmed or uncertain in a difficult situation. Moreover, anxiety, like all mental illnesses, isn’t just a phase.
There are actually several different types of anxiety disorders, and the common ones in teenagers include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: the experience of chronic, persistent anxiety throughout several contexts and situations. The worry is disproportionate and affects one’s quality of life, relationships, or school performance.
Social Anxiety Disorder: feeling high levels of anxiety in social interactions. The teenager may avoid or withdraw situations where other people are around due to fear of being judged or viewed negatively.
Specific Phobia: experiencing intense anxiety when exposed to a specific, triggering place or object. The teenager may take great lengths to avoid this trigger.
Panic Disorder: having repeated panic attacks and intense fear of future panic attacks.
Researchers have not pinpointed a single cause that triggers anxiety disorders, but the following risk factors may play a role:
History of big or small traumatic experiences
Compounded stress over time - including social, academic, athletic or familial
Presence of other mental health conditions
Anxiety disorders in the family
Drug or alcohol misuse
Anxiety can emerge at any age, although many people start experiencing their first symptoms in adolescence.
Recognizing The Signs of Anxiety
Some anxiety is a very normal reaction to stress, and can help teens handle tense or overwhelming situations. For many teens, things like public speaking, final exams, important athletic competitions, or even going out on a date can cause feelings of apprehension and uneasiness.
However, for some teens anxiety can go beyond these typical symptoms to negatively affect friendships and family relationships, academic work and participation in activities. Since teens experience a wide variety of physical and emotional changes as they grow, an anxiety disorder can be difficult to spot. Watch for these red flags that may indicate anxiety in your teens:
Feeling “keyed up”
Feeling on edge
Avoiding social interactions with usual friends
Avoiding extracurricular activities
Isolating from peer group
Spending increased time alone
Frequent headaches, including migraines
Unexplained aches and pains
Complaints of not feeling well with no obvious medical cause
Changes in eating habits.
Difficulty falling asleep
Difficulty staying asleep
Not feeling refreshed after sleep
Poor school performance
Significant downturn in grades
Frequently missed assignments
Describes feeling overwhelmed by workload
Procrastinates on, or has difficulty concentrating on, homework assignments more than usual
Listen (And Validate) Your Teenager
Most teenagers don’t want to listen to your lectures or advice. Taking this route is often a surefire way to be met with defensiveness.
Instead of talking, try to listen. Ask your teenager what’s been going on. Let them know that you’ve noticed some changes in their behavior or personality. Maintain a sense of neutrality and calmness. If they suspect that you’re probing for information or judging them, they’ll likely withdraw or only tell you what they think you want to hear.
Validation is essential, but many parents overlook this step. Validate how difficult it must be for your teenager to be going through these feelings. Let them know that you appreciate them talking to you. Offer a gentle word of encouragement if they express their discomfort.
Do not try and fix the situation. Do not blindly recite that “everything will be okay” or that they need to just “try and calm down.” Your child cannot just stop feeling anxious, and acting as if they can just reverse their feelings perpetuates feelings of shame, guilt, sadness, and (more) anxiety.
Finally, ask how you can provide support. Is there anything you can offer that would help them feel more comfortable? Would it be helpful to have them work with their school social worker? Would they like to join a support group for other teens dealing with similar challenges? Would talking to a therapist make them feel better?
If your teen appears to be struggling with anxiety that interferes with school, friendships, family relationships, or other areas of daily functioning, it’s important to get an evaluation from a licensed mental health practitioner. Anxiety is treatable, and most teens can learn to cope with and manage their anxiety independently.
Consider Professional Treatment
Understanding the relationship between anxiety and teenagers can help you be a more supportive and compassionate parent.
Although anxiety may feel debilitating, therapy can help both you and your teenager. Individual therapy allows teens a safe place to explore their fears. It also provides them with practical coping strategies for managing their distress.
Family therapy may also be an effective option. Anxiety can be intergenerational, which means that a parent may (unknowingly) pass on their symptoms to the child. Additionally, an anxious teen in the home can disrupt the normal routine. Learning how to cope with anxiety symptoms and triggers as a family can be very helpful in keeping home life calm and comfortable.
Furthermore, when a teenager feels anxious, it may be a sign that there are problems within the home. Professional support allows all of you to address these issues - and learn healthier ways for communicating, supporting, and connecting. Family therapy isn’t about placing blame - it’s about working together as a system to foster healthy change.
Finally, research suggests that anxiety often represents chemical imbalances in the brain. Therefore, your child may benefit from medication, which can offer stabilization and help reduce symptom severity. Consider having a consultation with your child’s doctor to discuss options.
Do you want to learn more about how I can provide support for the teenager in your life? Let's talk about the best ways to support you both.