An anxiety disorder is when worry or fear gets out of control and starts interfering with everyday life. Understanding more about teens and 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. It can even be helpful in some situations, such as feeling anxious before a job interview and putting in extra effort to prepare. However, if someone becomes so worried or afraid or obsessive about something that it affects their everyday life and causes them problems, they may have an underlying anxiety condition.
Types of anxiety disorders in teens
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 certain objects or situations (e.g. fear of dogs or of heights).
- Separation anxiety disorder: fear of being separated from a loved one or home.
What are teenagers anxious about?
Teens tend to be mostly anxious about themselves. They might worry about their performance at school or in extracurricular activities such as sport or music and feel extreme pressure to achieve perfect grades or scores. A teenager may also be facing new pressures at high school that they didn’t have to deal with in primary school, such as choosing electives and giving longer class presentations.
The physical changes of puberty are also a source of anxiety. Teens who develop earlier or later than other teens of their age can feel self-conscious about their body image and have lower confidence.
The people around them
Teenagers also often feel anxious about how they’re perceived by others. They might worry about embarrassing themselves or doing something that will be negatively judged by their peers. Socially, they’re learning to navigate new friendships. They might stop being friends with their peers from primary school and start making new friends based on similar interests.
During their teen years, your child may be thinking about getting their first job and worrying about the responsibilities that will come with it. They may also start thinking about what they want to pursue as a career after school.
Other external factors, such as climate change, COVID-19 or bad world news, can also create anxiety in teenagers. As a parent, some of these challenges might not seem too concerning to you, but for your teen, who is going through these experiences for the first time, they can be worrying and scary.
What are the signs of anxiety in a teenager?
Learning how to help a teenager with anxiety starts with recognising the symptoms. 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 even 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.
- They repeatedly seek reassurance.
- They always expect the worst-case scenario.
- They’re extremely self-conscious or sensitive to criticism.
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 and digestion issues
If these experiences are interfering with your teenager’s daily functioning, responsibilities and quality of life, it may indicate they have an anxiety disorder.
Why do teenagers have anxiety?
There’s no single cause for anxiety, but a number of factors 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 a change in living arrangements
- trauma, such as abuse, or the loss or death of a loved one
- other mental health conditions.
In particular, teenagers commonly experience anxiety because they’re going through a period of change and growth. During adolescence, their brains are developing, their physical appearance is changing, and they’re trying new things and gaining more independence. Feeling worried, scared or obsessed is a natural response to these developments. Social media can also amplify these feelings, as teenagers are no longer just experiencing these challenges at school or at home, but in the online world, too.
Is teenage anxiety normal?
Anxiety in teens is common, affecting 1 in 5 young women and 1 in 10 young men aged 16–25 years. It’s a natural response to the physical and life changes that teenagers face. But if it’s affecting your teenager’s everyday life and causing problems with their school, home life or friendships, it’s important to help them build some coping strategies and get support from a mental health professional.
What can I do to help right now?
If you think 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 making you worry, or is it things in general?
- How are you feeling physically?
- What are you thinking about?
- How is your anxiety affecting you? Is it making you behave in a particular way or preventing you 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.
When to take action
Anxiety affects different people in different ways. If your child experiences ongoing symptoms that can’t be attributed to an obvious cause or that are preventing them 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 many effective ways that anxiety can be treated by a professional. It’s best to set up an appointment with your GP, who can explain your options and refer you to a psychologist or another mental health professional.
There are also things 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.