The number of teens that are anxious are increasing every day. 6.3 million teens ages 13 to 18 have had an anxiety disorder. That number represented 25% of the population in that age group in 2015. For parents, this may mean you are dealing with teenage anxiety more and more. Schrobsdorf, S. (2016).
So how do you know if your teen has a problem with anxiety?
It's important to keep in mind that all anxiety isn't bad.
This page will explain some general issues that can become problematic for teens and some things you can do as a parent to spot when anxiety in teens rises to the level of a disorder.
A good rule of thumb is that if your teen is exhibiting behavior that is interfering with their ability to function in specific expected domains in their lives, such as school, family, or friendships, then you want to get them checked out to see if they may be suffering from anxiety that may be more serious.
Parents often deal with teen anxiety in the wrong way because they don't understand that anxiety is the cause of their child's behavior.
Anxiety in teen boys and anxiety teen girls can be expressed through what looks like bad behavior. Sometimes this behavior is truancy, mild drug use, or refusing to follow rules and arguing with parents or teachers.
Anxiety in both teen girls and teen boys can be expressed through avoidance which may look like refusing to do school work, attend school. To others this may be perceived as being lazy. To parents, if the activities seem important to their child's success, they may perceive their child as lazy when in fact they are just anxious.
As a parent if you help your child avoid the things that scare them, you reinforce their anxiety.
Also, If you get caught in a cycle of arguing or focusing on what you perceive as misbehavior, or lazy behavior, you also miss the boat as far as dealing appropriately with their anxiety.
Both of these approaches fail to address the real issue, the teen's anxiety.
Conflict and difficulty at home can also escalate a teens anxiety into depression.
It's very easy as a parent dealing with your teens anxiety to be fooled into addressing other behaviors. Often parents miss the anxiety completely! In fact I know many mental health professionals that do as well. If your teen is having difficulty with behaviors that are making it hard for them to function in the family or at school, its always smart to ask yourself if they might be experiencing anxiety.
Anxiety in teens can be caused by life stressors, especially if the teenager is already prone to stress. Anxiety in teen girls is often caused by dating issues. Of course, this can be true of anxiety in teen boys as well. Girls are often at a loss for how to behave and what to expect when dating. Half of the time I spend with my teenage clients amounts to dating advice. Teen anxiety around dating is particularly likely if there haven’t been explicit discussions in the house about dating and an open attitude that encourages teens to discuss this issue openly.
If kids are left to fend for themselves they will make a mess of figuring it out! Without the skilla to pick good dating partners, to know how to make good choices within that relationship, and how to stand up for themselves, they are overwhelmed. Dating is a huge source of anxiety in teens.
Body image issues are another source of anxiety in teen girls. Girls are under a tremendous amount of pressure to be thin and beautiful. This remains an issue women continue to struggle with. Teenage girls are judged by their appearance and are surrounded by media images of perfectly gorgeous and thin women who don’t exist in reality. I have noticed, in particular, that girls who present with anxiety over body images are more likely to have mother's who have body image issues.
Poor Communication Skills
Difficulty communicating and problem solving is often a source of anxiety in teen boys and anxiety in teen girls. These are rarely issues that are mastered in adolescents (or adults). Teens who have not mastered the skill of assertiveness and who have trouble verbalizing their thoughts and feelings are particularly vulnerable to anxiety. This is an issue of constant focus in my therapy practice. I will hear stories in therapy about how hurt teens were feeling when someone criticized them or ignored them or stepped on their feelings. When I ask “what did you say?”, the response is "nothing". Walking around with feelings stuffed inside all day long will cause both teenage anxiety and depression symptoms! Click here for more information about assertiveness.
Although it may not be apparent, teen boys can have very complex emotional lives. They are often taught not to verbalize their feelings and to be strong. Sometimes boys are so disconnected from what they feel that they are completely unable to even recognize their emotions. They may be avoidant and more hesitant to let you know what is happening. Inside they are feeling anxious, but outside they may appear depressed and angry.
Social media can hurt teens as it does for adults. They can feel pressured to keep up a social image, a beauty image, and can also be victims of bullying and sexual harassment. Parents often have no awareness at all of their kid's online life. It is important to know what your teen is doing on social media. Click here to learn more about the link between depression and social media here.
Academics can be a stress on a teen especially if they have an undiagnosed learning disability. This is very often the case with teens that come to see me. In the event that this is the case, or suspected, a referral is made for a psychological evaluation, and this can uncover what may be contributing to their school difficulties. Often a 504 or IEP can assist greatly in alleviating their anxiety.
1. Keep Communication Lines Open.
Creating a safe environment for teens is tough to do. As a parent, we want to ensure we are doing the right thing. That often transfers into lecturing, managing, and controlling behavior on parts of the parents especially when we start to get concerned about how our kids are doing. This is the last thing we should do. This shuts our kids down, makes them feel criticized, and often more anxious. Good parenting doesn't come naturally to most of us. Listening to and respecting our teen should be a big part of what we strive to do while encouraging them to explore their feelings and seek us out when they are stuck.
2. Model Emotional Regulation.
Resist the urge to yell, punish or act out when you are angry at your teens or anxious about what is happening. Instead, ask them calmly about what is going on. Share your observations and your thoughts. Let them know you are a resource for them, and encourage them to think about what might be going on with them, and how you might help them solve their problem.
3. Develop mental health literacy in your home.
Anxiety can be hidden by teens. One thing you can do to ensure that your teen is not hiding their anxiety because of fear of stigma is to reduce the stigma in your home around anxiety, depression, or mental illness in general.
4. Teach feelings identification.
Encourage them to identify their anxiety, and not use it as a reason to avoid doing things.
5. Don't shelter your child.
Protecting your child from ordinary disappointment and feelings or working through their difficulties will deprive them of opportunities to acquire coping skills and learn how to regular their emotions. Don't constantly step in to help your child as it will make their anxiety worse.
6. On the flip side, ease up on parental pressure.
In my practice, I see many adolescents who suffer from anxiety because of too many expectations from parents. Try to examine whether your expectations might be contributing to your teen's anxiety.
7. Err on the side of getting help.
It's never a bad idea to get therapy for yourself or your teen. Meet with a therapist if you think your teen is having a difficult time. It's never a bad idea to meet with a therapist and get an assessment to check-in. There may be things you can do to help yourself or your teen through this difficult time, and a professional can give you an objective opinion about these issues.
Learning to deal with your teen anxiety might also entail understanding it. Highlighted on the left margins of the page are the main kinds of anxiety teens deal with. Each is linked to more pages that discuss that specific kind of teen anxiety. Here is a good page from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that provides and overview of anxiety in teenagers as well.
Click here for a great page talking about teen anxiety on the rise
References for parents dealing with teen anxiety
EJ, Garland. (2001). Rages and Refusals: Managing the Many Faces of Adolescent Anxiety. Can Fam Physician , 1023-1030.
Schrobsdorf, S. (2016). The Kids Are Not All Right. Time International (South Pacific Edition), 188(19), 44. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy141.nclive.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=119170445&site=ehost-live
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