An anxiety disorder is when worry or fear gets out of control and starts interfering with everyday life. Learn more about anxiety and panic attacks, and find out how you can help and support your teen with managing an anxiety disorder.
What is anxiety?
Everyone gets anxious at times – it’s a part of life. It can even be helpful in some situations, such as when you feel anxious before a job interview and so put in extra effort to prepare. However, if someone becomes so worried or afraid or obsessive about something that it causes problems in their everyday life, they may have an underlying anxiety condition.
Types of anxiety in teenagers
There are many different types of anxiety disorders that can affect teens. The following are the most common forms of anxiety in teenagers:
- 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 in 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 from one’s home.
What causes anxiety in teens?
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 in teenagers. Teens who develop earlier or later than other teens of their age can feel self-conscious about their body and have lower self-confidence.
The people around them
Teenagers also often feel anxious about how they are perceived by others. They might worry about embarrassing themselves or doing something that their peers will judge them for in a negative way.
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, you might not be too concerned about some of these challenges, but for your teen, who is going through these experiences for the first time, they can be worrying and scary.
What are the anxiety symptoms in teens?
Learning how to help a teenager with anxiety starts with recognising the signs and symptoms. Anxiety symptoms in teens 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 but are 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 teen 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 of 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 learnt 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 to get support from a mental health professional.
What are panic attacks?
A panic attack is an intense rush of fear or anxiety, and will be accompanied by four or more of the following symptoms:
- racing heart or palpitations
- shortness of breath or feelings of choking
- dizziness, trembling or shaking
- numbness or a tingling sensation
- hot and cold flashes
- fear of dying or of losing control
- queasy stomach or nausea
- feeling detached from oneself and one's surroundings.
A panic attack can strike out of nowhere and can be extremely distressing. It can be particularly frightening if the person doesn’t realise that their symptoms are due to anxiety.
What causes panic attacks in teenagers?
Panic attacks can be a stress response to distressing external situations (e.g. bullying, or difficulties at school or at home), but they can also be a symptom of anxiety disorders.
If you are concerned your teen may have an anxiety disorder, the best thing to do is to visit a GP with them to discuss their symptoms. A GP can make a diagnosis, suggest treatment options, and refer your child to other mental health professionals such as a psychologist.
What can I do to help if my teenager has a panic attack?
If your teenager is experiencing panic attacks, it can be difficult to know how to help and support them.
The following ways are recommended for supporting someone who is having a panic attack:
- Keep your cool – your teen is more likely to feel calm if you are calm.
- Calmly reassure them and remind them that you’re here to help.
- Remind them to breathe slowly and deeply to help them reduce hyperventilation. You could offer to do this with them to help guide them.
- Read up on mental exercises that can help someone during a panic attack, such as progressive muscle relaxation exercises.
- Ask them in advance what they think will help them in the event of an attack. Everyone experiences panic attacks differently, and everyone has their own preferred way of being helped in the moment. The best thing to do is to have a conversation before an attack has started, and to ask your child what has helped them in the past so that you know what to do the next time a panic attack strikes.
How to help a teenager with anxiety
If you think your child is experiencing anxiety, help them to recognise it. Being aware of their anxiety will be their first step in managing it effectively. Ask them the following questions:
- 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 should I take action regarding my teenager’s anxiety?
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 about it 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 of steps they can take to keep their anxiety under control.