Understanding and Addressing Anxiety in Teens
Teenage anxiety, while concerning, is an expected behavior as children become more concerned with how they are perceived [*]. Anxiety in teens can manifest in many ways—it might appear as perfectionism, insecurity, or constant worry.
Unacknowledged teen anxiety can lead to depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Fortunately, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other treatments can yield positive responses and make anxiety disorders more manageable.
What is Teenage Anxiety?
Teenage anxiety refers to excessive feelings of worry, fear, or unease that adolescents experience. Anxiety is a natural human response to stress or potential danger, but it can be classified as an anxiety disorder when it becomes overwhelming and interferes with daily life.
Anxiety in teenagers is different from anxiety in children. The latter may experience anxiety in response to external factors like animals and insects, getting hurt playing a particular sport, or something terrible happening to parents or siblings. On the other hand, teenagers are more likely to feel anxious over internal grief, like physical changes to their bodies, school performance, and how peers perceive them.
Is It Normal for Teenagers to Experience Anxiety?
It is normal for teenagers to experience some anxiety, especially as they undergo significant physical, emotional, and mental changes. Most “normal range” anxiety dissipates within hours.
However, anxiety can quickly become an increasing concern for parents and caretakers if the feelings last weeks, recur frequently, and become disruptive to regular functioning.
What are the Common Signs of Anxiety in Teenagers?
Common signs of anxiety in teenagers range from withdrawal and avoidance to irritability and anger. Other behaviors that may indicate an anxious teenager include the following:
- Trouble concentrating in school or on chores
- Extreme sensitivity to criticism and intense self-consciousness
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Resistance to trying something new
- Poor performance in school
- Sleep problems
- Recurring fears and worries about routine parts of daily life
- Substance abuse
What Factors Contribute to the Development of Anxiety in Teens?
Genetics, personality, and adverse life events can contribute to the development of anxiety in teens. In addition, these factors occur as teenagers’ brains change and become exposed to more stressors.
Common culprits in the rise of teen anxiety might include [*]:
- High expectations and immense pressures to succeed
- Difficulties in school
- Social media
- Identity exploration
- Family changes (divorce, neglect, or abuse)
- Hormonal changes
- Future uncertainties regarding career and responsibilities
Are There Any Specific Types of Anxiety That Are More Common in Teenagers?
Specific types of anxiety disorders tend to be more common in teenagers due to the unique challenges and developmental changes they experience during this phase of life.
Social anxiety refers to an intense fear of social situations and a strong desire to avoid them. Teenagers may feel overly concerned about being judged or humiliated over their physical appearance and personality traits. Social anxiety can make it challenging for teenagers to make friends or participate in group settings.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Teenagers with generalized anxiety disorders experience excessive and uncontrollable worry over everyday situations [*]. They may experience difficulty regulating emotions and demonstrate physical symptoms like restlessness, muscle tension, and fatigue.
Panic disorder causes intense periods of fear and discomfort, occasionally characterized by physical symptoms like hyperventilation, difficulty breathing, and a racing heart [*]. Teenagers with panic disorder tend to develop avoidant behaviors.
Some anxious teenagers hyper-fixate on specific phobias like:
- Public speaking
- Medical procedures
Effective Self-Help Strategies That Teenagers Can Use to Manage Their Anxiety
While severe and persistent anxiety may require professional intervention, teens can adopt self-help strategies to manage symptoms.
Deep Breathing and Meditation
Deep breathing exercises can help reduce feelings of anxiety by promoting relaxation. Meditation helps teens focus their attention, quieting disturbing thoughts and improving stress management [*].
Teach teenagers to take slow, deep breaths, holding for a few seconds and then exhaling slowly.
Regular deep breathing exercises allow teenagers to introduce mindfulness techniques using apps or following guided videos gradually.
When teenagers exercise, their bodies release endorphins or natural mood enhancers. Psychologists suggest that even a 10-minute walk can improve depression in teens [*]. In addition, studies show that working out in the morning may improve sleep quality [*].
Options for exercise can be accessible, like jogging or at-home yoga. More involved teens might enjoy dance classes or a sport.
By writing their thoughts down, teens can gain insights into anxiety triggers and challenge negative beliefs by turning them into positive thoughts. Journaling as an outlet provides opportunities to develop emotional intelligence, identify and process emotions, express uncertainties, and track feelings and thoughts over time [*].
On paper, teens can map out alternative perspectives and ask themselves whether their views are realistic.
Creative activities like drawing, painting, songwriting, or playing a musical instrument can be distracting and enriching. In addition, studies prove that creative outlets enable trauma expression and allow teens to manage negative emotions [*].
A sense of predictability can reduce teen uncertainty and anxiety by lowering stress levels, promoting focus, developing healthy habits, and fostering productivity.
Encourage your teen to create consistency and structure through daily to-do lists and time management techniques. Remind your teen that some things are out of their control, and they’re better off focusing on aspects of their life that can be helped.
How Can Parents Communicate Effectively with Their Anxious Teenagers Without Causing Additional Stress?
Parents and caregivers can communicate effectively with anxious teenagers through validation and active listening without causing additional stress.
Teenagers are prone to feeling attacked—as a parent, dismantling judgmental approaches begins with acknowledging your teen’s fears and emotions. Let your teen know you understand why they think a certain way. Then, more importantly, find a way to relate.
For example: “School can be challenging, and I can imagine it’s causing you stress. I understand why you wouldn’t want to get out of bed—I remember feeling that way when I was in school.”
Continue to validate your child. If they seem resistant to sharing more, don’t hesitate to ask a few questions. Put your child in a position to lead the conversation.
For example: “Have you noticed these feelings getting in the way of things you normally enjoy?”
Teens won’t open up right away. If they seem closed off, remind them that there’ll be other opportunities to share their feelings with you.
For example: “I understand that you don’t feel comfortable sharing how you feel right now. If you’re open to it, we can have another conversation when you’re ready. I’m here to support you every step of the way. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
How Can Teachers Support Students Dealing with Anxiety?
Teachers play a critical role in supporting students dealing with anxiety, as they are an imperative part of the developmental process. Below are several ways teachers can create supportive classroom environments:
- Educate yourself: Like students, teachers need ample education regarding anxiety symptoms. Train yourself to recognize behaviors like dropping grades, avoiding activities, trouble concentrating, and chronic physical complaints.
- Be approachable: While students see teachers as authoritative figures, it should be clear that they’re there to provide emotional and academic support.
- Break tasks into smaller steps: Significant tasks like projects can feel overwhelming to students with anxiety. Break these tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps that provide structure.
- Provide predictability: Establish clear routines and expectations in the classroom.
- Offer quiet spaces: Designate a quiet corner in the classroom where students can take short breaks and re-center.
Teachers can also provide teens with anxiety worksheets for reflection.
When to Seek Professional Help for Teenager Anxiety
When it comes to seeking professional help for anxiety in teenagers, the sooner the better. Teenagers are undergoing a critical stage in their developmental years and reinforcing successful coping strategies increases the changes of a positive outcome.
The most effective treatment for anxiety in teenagers is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which provides strategies for thinking differently about anxiety [*]. A variation of CBT called exposure therapy increases subjection to feared objects, places, and activities to reduce or eliminate anxious responses.
Some professionals may recommend treating anxiety in teenagers using antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), depending on the condition’s severity.
The Bottom Line
It can be challenging for parents, teachers, and caretakers to discern anxiety disorders in teenagers, as many of the symptoms may appear typical of stress. However, a little education can go a long way.
By studying the symptoms of anxiety in teenagers, encouraging self-help strategies, and seeking help from a professional, you can successfully provide a safe and supportive environment.
Explore Mental Health Center for Kids’ collection of worksheets as part of a comprehensive treatment program for your child.
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