An anxiety disorder is when worry or fear get out of control and start interfering with everyday life. Anxiety in teens is common, affecting 1 in 5 young women and 1 in 10 young men aged 16–25 years. Understanding more about anxiety will help you to determine if it’s an issue for your child. If it is, you can then take steps to help them manage it.
What is anxiety?
Everyone gets anxious at times – it’s a part of life and can even be helpful in some situations, like getting a burst of energy to power through a stressful job interview. However, when someone becomes so worried about or afraid of something, or obsessed about something happening in a certain way, that it affects their everyday life and causes them problems, there may be an underlying anxiety condition at play.
Types of anxiety
There are many different types of anxiety disorders. The following are the most common ones:
- Generalised anxiety disorder: anxiety or worry that isn’t about one specific thing, but can be about many everyday situations.
- Social anxiety: fear of being in public or social situations where people might judge you.
- Panic disorder: repeated panic attacks that make you feel fear or terror.
- Agoraphobia: anxiety about having a panic attack in certain situations and not being able to escape or get help.
- Specific phobia: intense fear of objects of situations (e.g. fear of dogs or heights).
- Separation anxiety disorder: fear of being separated from a loved one or home.
You can read more about the specific types of anxiety on our Youth site here.
What are the risk factors for anxiety?
There are a number of factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood of someone experiencing an anxiety disorder. These include:
- genetics – a family history of anxiety, or a child’s role models displaying anxious behaviours
- personality factors and learned traits, such as a child being highly sensitive, shy, a perfectionist or having low self-esteem
- chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes or epilepsy
- ongoing stressful events, such as family problems or change in living arrangements
- trauma, such as abuse, or the loss or death of a loved one
- other mental health conditions.
How can I recognise the symptoms of anxiety in my teenager?
The symptoms of anxiety can look different for each type of disorder. However, the following are some common signs of anxiety in teens.
- They worry about or are extremely fearful of specific situations or of everyday life.
- They complain that their mind is racing and they can’t think straight.
- They are unable to concentrate or to remember things.
- They avoid new and difficult situations.
- They avoid social situations, and are socially isolated or extremely shy.
- They’re always on edge or nervous.
- They’re constantly tired and unable to sleep.
Physical symptoms that may accompany anxiety include:
- chest pain, rapid heartbeat and sweating
- shallow breathing and shortness of breath
- restlessness and shaking
- dry mouth, stomach pains, nausea, digestion issues
If these experiences are interfering with their daily functioning, responsibilities and quality of life, your teenager may have an anxiety disorder.
What can I do to help right now?
If you think that your child is experiencing anxiety, help them to recognise it. Awareness of anxiety will be the first step for them in managing it effectively. Ask them the following questions relating to anxiety symptoms in teens:
- Is something specific causing them to worry, or is it things in general?
- How are they feeling physically?
- What are they thinking about?
- How is their anxiety affecting them – is it making them behave in a particular way, or is it preventing them from doing something?
By helping your young person to be aware of the triggers for their anxiety, they can learn to manage situations that might intensify it. They’ll also learn strategies that will help them to deal with anxiety in the moment, such as breathing or relaxation exercises.
Anxiety affects different people in different ways. If it goes on for an extended period of time or becomes difficult for you and your child to manage together, you should be prepared to support them to seek professional help. There are many effective ways that anxiety can be treated by a professional, and it’s best to set up an appointment with your GP who can explain your options and refer you to a psychologist.
When to take action
If your child experiences ongoing symptoms that can’t be attributed to an obvious cause or are preventing your child from doing everyday tasks, then it’s possible they have an anxiety disorder. If the symptoms go on for more than two weeks, it’s a good idea to talk to your child and to seek professional help.
There are also things that you can do to help your child become aware of how their anxiety affects them, and to make them aware of steps they can take to keep their anxiety under control.