Helping an anxious teenager isn’t easy.
In this article you’ll learn how to understand your teen’s anxiety, recognize the various signs of anxiety (physical, emotional, behavioral), and best practices for parenting.
In This Article
About the Author
Leslie Bashioum, MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor specializing in marriage counseling, anxiety, and depression treatment. You can schedule an appointment with Leslie for online counseling or in-person at our Springfield, Missouri counseling center.
Every teen experiences anxiety…
Anxiety in teens can show up in a variety of different ways. For instance, you may find your teen is suddenly being overcome with worry or they are continuously avoiding social situations for what seems like no reason at all.
Perhaps you find your daughter feels she has to do perfect in school in order to be good enough. Maybe you have a son who even the smallest things seem to stress him out or who panics in certain situations. Regardless of the way anxiety shows its face, parenting an anxious teen can be a real challenge.
There is no one who knows more than you the toll that anxiety can take on your teen. You can see the tension and worry on their face. You find yourself wishing they could just brush their fears off and focus on the positive things in their life. Somehow, it’s not that easy.
Anxiety’s grip has become too strong. Anxiety can be difficult for anyone to deal with, and we all know adolescence comes with a whirlwind of changes and uncertainties for both teenagers and their parents. When you add anxiety to the mix, it can feel like an unwanted guest that can leave you, as a parent, feeling as overwhelmed as your teen.
How to Understand Anxiety
In today’s fast-paced world, we have all experienced anxiety at one time or another. Teenagers are even more prone to anxiety due to the many stressors that come with adolescence. During the adolescent years, your teen will face a mixture of hormonal changes and continued brain development, which both play a big role in your teen’s formation of identity.
Because teens are in the midst of such big cognitive, social, and biological changes, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy anxiety.
Most of us would probably agree that we could live without anxiety. However, the reality is, anxiety does have a purpose. Anxiety can help motivate us to get things done, meet deadlines, and get to appointments on time, or so it should. There is a level of healthy anxiety that we all experience.
During the adolescent years, it is normal for your teen to experience increased levels of worry or stress amidst juggling school, friendships, and other activities. While there is a healthy level of anxiety that you can expect your teen to experience, there is a point when it is no longer healthy.
If you notice your teen is having difficulty doing daily activities, i.e. spending time with friends, or living a life of a “normal” teen, then your teen’s anxiety is impacting their functioning. And that is where mental health professionals define the boundary between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. For example, many teens worry about their performance in school, but if your teen refuses to go to school out of fear of failure, this would be impacting their functioning.
Below we will take a closer look at the different symptoms you can be looking for if you suspect your teen might be experiencing anxiety.
Physical Signs of Anxiety
Teenagers who are characteristically worriers are more prone to excessively blowing events out of proportion, therefore triggering further anxiety.
This anxiety often causes physical distress. This can show up in the form of stomachaches, headaches, and muscle tension, to name a few physical symptoms. When worry continuously invades your teen’s thoughts, it can make it hard to concentrate.
This can also lead to difficulties in sleeping and restlessness due to worry that is keeping the body and mind on high alert.
Common Physical Symptoms of Anxiety (Both Normal and Abnormal):
- Frequent headaches or stomachaches (with no medical reason)
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulties Concentrating
- Changes in sleep: trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Emotional Signs of Anxiety
With their identity formation in constant motion, teens are prone to compare themselves to others in order to decide if they are competent and worthwhile.
As a parent, you have a front row seat to how perfectionism can trigger panic, lead to fatigue, and in the worst-case scenario, result in paralysis when attempting to complete tasks. As a result, you may notice your anxious teen needing excessive reassurance from you and others in regard to their identity and whether they are good enough.
Much like adults, your teen worries about a variety of things. A teen with excessive worry or fear is always on the lookout for ways their plan or an event will not work.
Oftentimes, they can be so focused on the problem that they do not even notice the things that are actually working well for them. It is important to note that during the adolescent years, egocentrism is a developmentally normal cognitive limitation.
Simply stated, it is perfectly normal for your teen to have the belief that others are highly attentive to their behavior and appearance or that all eyes are on them all the time.
As we discussed earlier, this becomes truly problematic when it begins impacting your teen’s functioning.
For example, let’s say your teen dropped a tray in the cafeteria at school and believes the whole school saw this happen. An abnormal response would be your teen subsequently refusing to go to school or take part in any other school activities. In this example, the anxiety would be considered unhealthy because it is impacting their daily functioning.
Emotional Signs of Abnormal Teen Anxiety:
- Excessive worry or fear
- Obsessive thoughts
- Afraid of making even minor mistakes
- Excessive concern that others are upset with them
- Excessive need for reassurance
Behavioral Signs of Anxiety
Avoidance can be one of the most damaging characteristics of anxiety. When situations are continuously avoided, flawed beliefs do not get tested.
Over time, your teen can lose their confidence for taking risks and not learn needed skills in coping with anxiety-provoking situations. When the avoidance becomes excessive, you may notice your teen withdrawing from activities that they once loved.
You also may notice your teen appearing more irritable than normal. This is often a sign that your teen does not have the internal resources for handling the demands being placed on them. At times, anxiety can also lead to self-medication through substance use and other risky behaviors as a way to attempt to reduce or eliminate unwanted feelings.
Social Signs to Watch For:
- Withdrawl from activities they once loved
- Increased irritability/Anger outbursts
- Excessive avoidance
- Refusal to attend school
- Engaging in risky behaviors
How to Parent an Anxious Teenager
If your teen is willing to talk to you about their fears and anxieties, your goal should be to listen. One of the most important actions you can take as a parent is to show your teen who is struggling with anxiety that you care.
By simply listening, you can send the message to your teen that they are not alone in their struggle. It is also important to consider the important role that you, as the parent, play as a role model.
Most anxious teens will watch their parents’ reactions as a way to figure out if they are in danger. As a parent of an anxious teen, it is important for you to remain calm and maintain an environment of safety for your teen. This encourages an environment of openness and helps send the message to your teen that there really might not be anything to fear.
Best Parenting Practices:
- Listen to how your teen is feeling
- Stay calm when your teen becomes anxious about an event or situation
- Recognize and praise small accomplishments
- Maintain a normal routine
- Plan for transitions (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult)
- Seek help from a primary care physician or mental health professional
No matter how stuck you or your teen may feel right now, with the right tools, you can help your teen overcome their anxiety.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Contact My Counselor Online. We are here to help!
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Anxiety Disorders Association of America. (2018). Anxiety Disorders in Children [Brochure]. Silver Spring, MD: Author.
Josephs, S. A. (2016). Helping your anxious teen: Positive parenting strategies to help your teen beat anxiety, stress, and worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Schab, L. M. (2008). The anxiety workbook for teens: Activities to help you deal with anxiety & worry. Oakland, CA: Harbinger Publications.
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