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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. Schrobsdorf, S. (2016).
It's important to keep in mind that all anxiety isn't an anxiety disorder. Feeling anxious in general isn't necessary bad, it's only when it rises to the level of a disorder that it becomes a problem. 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.
A phobia is defined an excessive, irrational fear toward an object or situation. Teens who have this anxiety disorder will often avoid situations that remind them of their phobia. A common phobia I see in my office is fear of vomiting. Teens who have phobias have significant impairment in their functioning due to that fear.
Although more common in early childhood, teens can also suffer from this. A teen with separation anxiety feels unusual distress about being separated from a person or pet ( could be a parent, boyfriend etc) Thoughts usually are around the other person being harmed if they are left alone and there is often fear of being left alone. Learn more here.
Anxiety in teens may often be expressed through defiance and avoidance, especially in boys but also in girls. Anxiety in teens can appear to be bad behavior. In my office, this behavior is often truancy, mild drug use, and oppositional or argumentative behavior at home. Parents often unknowingly will reinforce a child’s anxiety if their symptoms are primarily behavioral because they avoid doing things that upset the child, thus feeding their anxiety.
If parents are not tipped toeing around the teen anxiety than they are engaging in conflict over the teens' behavior, thus leading to stressful and uncomfortable home life. This can contribute to teens anxiety and depression as well.
Both of these approaches fail to address the real issue, the teen's anxiety.
Anxiety in teens can be caused by life stressors, especially if the teenager is already prone to stress. Girls, in particular, are very vulnerable to anxiety over dating issues. 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 cultivates and exchanges between the teenager's parents around sex and dating. If kids are left to fend for themselves they will make a mess of figuring it out. Without the skill 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. This is the case with teenage boys as well. Click here for more information about teen dating.
Body image issues are another source of anxiety in teens. Girls are under a tremendous amount of pressure to be thin and beautiful. As far as women have come over the past few decades, this remains an issue we have not been able to escape from. 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 mothers who have body image issues.
Poor Communication Skills
Difficulty communicating and problem solving is often a source of anxiety in teens. 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 your feelings stuffed inside all day long will cause you anxiety and depression! 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, to be strong, and are sometimes not even able to recognize their feelings. 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.
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.
Click here for a great page talking about teen anxiety on the rise
References for anxiety in teens
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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This page is about how self-compassion and mindfulness and skills such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion can help us with depression and anxiety.