A Parent’s Guide to Teen Anxiety

Anxiety is very common among teens. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that nearly one in three adolescents (31.9%) meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Researchers have found that anxiety in children has increased 20% over 5 years.

All of us experience some anxiety throughout our lives, and it is normal for teens to feel anxious emotions during adolescence. However, many teens experience too much anxiety and it starts to impede on their life and their ability to function. In today’s article, we will explain the signs that could indicate your teen is experiencing anxiety and ways that you can help.

Signs or Symptoms of Anxiety

If you’re not sure if your tween or teen is experiencing anxiety or not, below are a list of possible symptoms:

  • Excessive worrying or inability to control feelings of worry.
  • Recurring fears about routine parts of everyday life or that bad things will happen in the future.
  • Avoiding activities, friends, school, or social interactions.
  • Complaining of headaches, chest tightness, stomachaches, shortness of breath, trembling, pounding heart, or excessive fatigue.
  • Spending an excessive amount of time on simple projects.
  • Afraid to make even minor mistakes.
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating.
  • Changing behavior, such as irritability, restlessness, edginess, or unexplained outbursts.
  • Dropping grades.
  • Frequent expressions of being ‘stressed out’ or ‘burned out.’

Note that having only one of these symptoms does not mean your child has anxiety. You are looking for multiple signs listed above that are impeding your teen’s enjoyment of life.

Tips for Parents with an Anxious Adolescent

Here are some ideas for how parents can help combat anxiety in their teens:

  • Be a good role model. – It might not feel like your teen is paying much attention to you, but research consistently shows that adolescents are very likely to follow your example. With that in mind, make sure that you monitor your own words and actions. Talk about taking choosing to go beyond your comfort zone and overcoming your fears. Use positive coping skills (see bullet below) to manage your own anxiety. Refrain from commenting about how anxious you are about events in your teen’s life, such as a test or competition.
  • Teach positive coping skills. All of us get stressed from time to time, but it’s how we handle that stress that can determine our success and happiness in life. Make sure that you talk to your teen about healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety. For example, taking a walk, reading a book, listening to music, meditation, exercising, journaling, deep breathing, or talking with a friend are all positive ways to cope with challenges.
  • Instill problem-solving skills. When a young person feels confident in their ability to problem solve, they will not shy away from challenges or great opportunities simply because they feel intimidated. Problem solving skills are learned with practice, so we must allow our children the opportunity to deal with their own problems. Offer guidance, but allow your child the satisfaction of figuring it out for themselves. It may be hard to watch, but tackling a problem independently can give your child confidence and reduce anxiety. To learn more about how to instill these skills, please read our previous blog, Teaching Problem Solving Skills.
  • Avoid common mistakes that increase anxiety. There are some parenting techniques that many of us use with the very best of intentions that can accidentally increase a teen’s anxiety:
    • Unrealistic praise. We often want to build our teen’s self-esteem, but we might resort to excessive praise. This creates high expectations for your teen that places a lot of pressure on them, increasing anxiety. Instead, save your praise for true accomplishments and hard work towards a goal.
    • Focus on happiness. Many of us also feel like it’s our job to make our kids happy all the time, so we try to cheer them up when they are sad and calm them down when they are angry. Unfortunately, we are taking responsibility for our teen’s feelings, and they begin to feel worried whenever they experience a negative emotion.
    • Overly protective. Another common parenting mistake that increases anxiety in youth is being overly protective. While we all want to protect our children from pain and difficulties, we need to be careful that we don’t subconsciously communicate that we think they can’t handle challenges. We must allow them to develop independence, and as they overcome difficulties, they gain more confidence that they can handle what life throws at them.
  • Seek Support.  Don’t hesitate to get your child professional help because anxiety is highly treatable! A licensed counselor is trained to help teenagers learn to cope with anxiety. They can teach your teen how to recognize their triggers and techniques to help reduce symptoms and curb negative responses. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.

Treatment for Anxiety

You may be wondering what sort of treatment is available for anxiety if you should seek help from a professional. Studies show that the most effective treatments for anxiety are cognitive‐behavioral therapy (CBT) and SSRI medications. 

  • CBT focuses on changing how the child thinks about their fear, gradually increasing exposure to feared situations in a controlled way, and relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and positive self‐talk (repeating positive or reassuring statements to oneself).
  • SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the most frequently used medications for treating anxiety. The hormone serotonin is associated with the regulation of a variety of functions including mood and is sometimes imbalanced in those with anxiety issues. SSRIs focus solely on the levels of serotonin (selective) by preventing its absorption (reuptake) by nerve cells in the brain. By stabilizing levels of serotonin, these medications decrease feelings of anxiety and regulate mood.

Studies have found a combination of CBT and medication for 12 weeks yields a positive response in 80% of children with anxiety. In fact, 65% of those children had no or minimal anxiety symptoms after the 12 weeks of treatment. With CBT alone, 60% of children had a positive response.

Final Thoughts…

None of us wants to see our children unhappy, and it can be heartbreaking when we see our tweens or teens experiencing anxiety. Our role is to help them learn to cope with and reduce their anxiety and continue to function well despite their worries. We can express confidence that our teen is going to be okay, that they will be able to manage the situation, and that their anxiety will decrease over time as they face their fears. When we communicate that we believe in them, our teens are much more likely to feel capable.

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