Helping Your Anxious Teen

If you have a teen who experiences excessive worry or anxiety, you are not alone. Nearly one-third of teens experience a diagnosable anxiety disorder between the ages of 13 and 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is natural for teens to worry occasionally and to experience stress at certain times, such as when giving a talk in front of the class or when studying for finals. Your teen might be experiencing a problem with anxiety, though, if she feels anxious most days and does not feel better over time, and if her worries interfere with her daily life. 

Some teens easily recognize that they are having trouble with anxiety. These teens typically talk about feeling stressed, worried, or anxious, and they might even request to talk to a therapist. Sometimes, though, teens have trouble identifying that what they are feeling is anxiety. Instead, they might talk about physical symptoms of anxiety, such as headaches, stomachaches, or just not feeling well. If you suspect that your teen is experiencing anxiety, but she is having trouble talking about it, it can be helpful to look for behavioral signs. For example, a teen who is more irritable than normal, is complaining of physical problems that do not have a medical cause, or is having trouble sleeping might be experiencing anxiety. Additionally, avoidance of certain situations is a common sign of anxiety. For example, an anxious teen might avoid going to crowded places or trying out for a sport that she enjoys.

There are several types of anxiety disorders that teens (and adults) experience. The most common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is characterized by excessive worry or anxiety most days, difficulty managing worries, and irritability when anxious. Someone who is experiencing GAD worries frequently about a variety of issues. For teens, common worries include grades, performance in sports, being judged by others, and the future. Another common anxiety disorder is Social Anxiety Disorder, which is an intense fear about social or performance situations that interferes with daily life. Teens who have Social Anxiety Disorder fear being judged by or embarrassed in front of others, and this fear interferes with their social interactions and their ability to form and maintain friendships. Other anxiety disorders include specific phobias, such as a fear of blood, animals, or heights, and Panic Disorder, which is characterized by recurrent and unexplained panic attacks.  

If you suspect that your teen is experiencing anxiety, there are many things you can do to help! 

  • First, it is important to talk with your teen about what she is experiencing. Let her know that anxiety is very common, and that she can feel better. Encourage her to talk with you about her fears, and respond in a calm manner. Perhaps talk with her about times when you have felt anxious and how you overcame those situations. 
  • Next, be aware that teens often use avoidance to manage anxiety. For example, she might decide to not to join the art club due to fear about being judged by the other members. Although avoidance provides temporary relief from anxiety, this strategy ultimately makes the anxiety worse. If she never faces her fear, how will she know that she enjoys spending time with others in art club? You can help by first letting her know that you understand her fear and her desire to protect herself from this fear, and then by encouraging her to face the fear anyway. 
  • Additionally, refrain from providing excessive reassurance. While reassurance may temporarily relieve anxiety, it does not help address the bigger issue. In fact, your teen might become dependent on reassurance to deal with her anxiety. Instead of reassuring your teen that everything will be ok, express understanding of her worries and help her think about the situation in a different way. While it is possible that what she fears might happen, what is a more likely scenario? Can she come up with some alternatives herself? Helping your teen change her own anxious thoughts will teach her a skill that she can use on her own when you are not around. 
  • Finally, consider talking with a therapist. Therapy can help you and your teen better understand the anxiety that she is experiencing and give you both tools to worry and feel anxious less frequently. 

If your teen is experiencing anxiety, it is important to actively address this anxiety. While it might be tempting to hope that the anxiety will resolve on its own, this typically is not the case. With your help, and perhaps also the help of a therapist, relief from anxiety is very possible.

Christine Howard, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist