It is normal for children to experience fear and worry as they grow up. For example, children might feel afraid when they are away from their parents, or worried about fitting in with their peers. Adolescents are no exception. Teenagers can be worried about going to a new school, afraid of making friends, or anxious about the changes that their bodies are going through. However, when these fears start to overwhelm a teen’s daily life and functioning—that is when parents should be concerned. Symptoms of anxiety disorders often surface during the adolescent years, and generally interfere with school, home life, and day-to-day activities. However, the signs of anxiety in teens are not always obvious. Teens tend to disguise their thoughts and feelings, and parents may not notice when they are struggling.
According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 1 in 3 adolescents (between the ages of 13 and 18) will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. This figure has been rising in recent years, as teenagers have faced first-hand stresses from the pandemic, increased social media usage, and a bumpy political climate. Many teens are overly worried about school, due to the increasing risks of violence in classrooms, and even the pressures they might face to succeed. As parents, it’s important to recognize that anxiety is a reality for many teenagers, no matter their age or upbringing.
The best thing you can do, as a parent, is to become an advocate for your teen. Educate yourself about anxiety in adolescents, its signs and effects, as well as the potential treatment options for your teen.
Types of Anxiety Disorders in Teens
There are many types of anxiety disorders, each with different symptoms. In general, however, anxiety manifests as persistent fears or worries that cause distress and interfere with a person’s life. Anxiety disorders do not go away on their own, and the symptoms can get worse without proper treatment. As cited by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anxiety disorders in teens might exhibit as:
- A constant fear of the future and/or of bad things happening (generalized anxiety)
- A fear of places or situations where there are a lot of people, such as school (social anxiety)
- A fear of being away from family/parents (separation anxiety)
- A fear of a specific thing or situation, such as going to the doctor or crowded spaces (phobias)
- Repeated, sudden, and unexpected episodes of panic and intense fear (panic disorder)
Common Signs of Anxiety in Teens
As noted above, different anxiety disorders will showcase different signs and symptoms. As a parent, knowing what to look for can help identify whether your teenager has problems with anxiety. Remember that some fears or worries are normal as children and teens develop; however, if you find that these symptoms are interfering with your son or daughter’s life, it may be time to seek help.
The most common signs of anxiety in teenagers include:
- Repeated or persistent fears and worries, often about routine parts of daily life
- Extreme self-esteem issues and sensitivity to criticism
- Constant need for reassurance
- Rumination or overthinking
- Withdrawal from social activity
- Avoidance of new or difficult situations
- Drops in school performance, or refusing to go to school
- Irritability and lashing out at others
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Physical ailments without an explicable cause, such as headaches or stomachaches
- Alcohol and drug use, and other risky behaviors
Other signs of generalized anxiety disorder in teenagers include:
- Feelings of restlessness or constantly being on-edge
- Constant fatigue
- Difficulty controlling feelings of worry or fear
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep
Phobia-related anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, may also show signs like:
- Irrational or excessive fears about encountering a certain object or situation
- Active avoidance of an object or situation
- Overwhelming feelings of anxiety when encountering their fear
- Physical ailments when presented with the certain thing or situation
- Tense or rigid body posture
- Avoidance of eye contact and speaking with an overly soft voice in social situations (social anxiety)
- Fear of what others may think/extreme self-consciousness (social anxiety)
Sometimes, anxiety can exhibit physical signs. Signs of panic attacks (caused by anxiety) in teens might include:
- Shaking or trembling
- Pounding or racing heart
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Feelings of impending doom
- Feelings of things being out of their control
What to Do if Your Teen is Experiencing Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
If your teenager is showing any of the above signs, and they are disrupting his or her quality of life, then it may be time to seek treatment. Again, anxiety disorders do not go away on their own. However, they can be actively managed and treated with the right professional support. The earlier a parent intervenes and addresses these symptoms, the better outcomes they can expect for their child over the years.
In addition to being aware of the signs of anxiety in teens (listed above), parents should have open conversations about mental health at home. Talk to your teenager about potential stressors they are facing—at school, at home, and in life. Ask questions and try to understand the way they are feeling or experiencing the world. Do not judge your teen, but always listen and support them. Help them find ways to cope with their anxieties. If, from these conversations or from your observations, you find that your teen’s anxiety has become overwhelming, it is important to find professional help.
One of the first places you can turn to for help is a healthcare provider, such as a family doctor or primary care provider, or a mental health specialist. This clinician can set you up with a mental health screening, which will evaluate your child’s symptoms and needs. This preliminary evaluation is an important first step to getting a diagnosis and treatment plan for your teenager. From there, your teen can start on the path to recovery, which might involve counseling, behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination to help manage their difficult symptoms.
Behavior therapy is highly recommended for anxiety in teenagers, as it helps adolescents cope with and manage their symptoms while gradually exposing them to their fears and anxieties. As you research potential treatment options, it is important to seek a mental health treatment provider that specializes in adolescent anxiety. Look for a treatment center that fully focuses on younger demographics, and is specially trained in treating mental health disorders in teenagers (like Turnbridge).
Parents may also take preventative measures to help their teens mitigate stress. For example, parents should be mindful of the expectations they set for their teens. Of course, you want your child to succeed—but make sure you are setting expectations that are realistic and achievable. Your teenager wants to make you happy, but too much pressure to succeed can cause anxiety. Additionally, parents can be actively involved in their teens’ lives and activities—including their social media usage. Help your teen learn to take breaks from their smartphone, where they may read stressful news headlines, see unrealistic images, and even experience cyberbullying. Social media can have a negative effect on teens’ mental health, and parents can play a role in ensuring there is balance in their teen’s day to day life.
Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment provider for teenagers and young adults. If you would like to speak with a mental health specialist about your child’s anxiety, or simply would like to learn more about our programs, please do not hesitate to contact us online here.