FAQ about teen anxiety for parents

father and son talking sitting on steps

Many teens – and their parents – experience anxiety and have questions about anxiety. It may be a difficult time, but there are practical things you can do to support your teen. We asked our team of One-on-One Support family professionals for their suggestions in response to some common questions we get from parents.

Anxiety and tough times

How can I support my teen when they’re having a hard time?

Have patience, listen to your teen and try not to minimise their experience. Sometimes, your teen just wants to have a chat with you and doing so can help them figure out their feelings. Learn more about communicating effectively with your teen.

Let them be their own expert and then problem-solve together. Help them identify what kind of anxiety is useful for them, like the kind that makes them study for a test, and what kind is unhealthy, like when it affects their sleeping or eating patterns.

Some common concerns that may arise from this conversation include:

  • Their confidence is being affected by negative self-talk.

  • They’re experiencing physical symptoms of anxiety, like a racing heart, and it’s causing them discomfort.

  • They don’t know what to do about their feelings of anxiety.

Depending on what your teen needs, you might work together to:

  • learn breathing or muscle relaxation exercises, to help them with the physical symptoms of anxiety

  • recognise their strengths and learn how to challenge negative thinking

  • identify what causes their anxiety, such as test dates or performance expectations

  • approach a professional to get further support.

Get more tips for supporting your teen with anxiety here. You can also encourage your teen to open up to other trusted friends, family members or teachers.

How can I help my teen navigate through tough times, which increase their anxiety?

Start by asking how you can help.

If they’re thinking negatively, for every negative, ask them to think of a positive that’s equally true. Example: If they’re worried that someone doesn’t like them, remind them of all the people who do like them, and the qualities those people admire in them.

If they’re imagining the worst outcome, get them also to imagine the best outcome and what they can do to help make that happen. Example: If they’re worried about letting their team down in a sport, remind them of times when they’ve played really well, and encourage them to picture themselves doing the same again. This simple visualisation trick can help in achieving any performance goal.

If they’re putting pressure on themselves, help them to set realistic, manageable expectations. Example: Get them to think about what a good outcome would be, based on their history, and to aim for that. Anything more is a well-deserved bonus. Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes; it’s an essential part of stretching ourselves and mastering skills.

Make sure they know you’ll love and support them no matter what, and reassure them through your own role modelling. Example: Point out positives, not negatives, and praise effort over achievement. Don’t berate yourself or others for mistakes.

Be aware of the expectations you’re setting by what you say and do. Use positive, encouraging language to highlight your teen’s strengths, and remind them of previous tough times that they’ve overcome. By helping them to identify what worked in the past, you’re giving them strategies they can use now. And for some of it, you don’t need to teach them anything – just be there for them.

What can I do to help my teen when they experience unexpected changes?

Unexpected changes, like school being shut down or a family emergency can make us feel like our progress is being undone. That's okay! You can normalise the change by discussing how you are feeling the impact, too. Learn more about talking to your teen about change here.

To help them get through this challenge, create a wellbeing plan with achievable goals like exercise and connecting with friends online. Map out their support network: who they can chat to if they’ve had a bad day, what mental health support their school offers, and what resources are available online.

Figure out what works for them – some teens like speaking on the phone, while others prefer texting; some like speaking to people they know, while others feel more comfortable using anonymous forums or hotlines.

Communication and boundaries

I think my teen is struggling, but they’re denying anything is wrong and won’t talk to me about it. What can I do?

Try adjusting your language so the focus isn’t on your teen. Use ‘I’ statements that focus on what you are feeling and believing, such as ‘I’m feeling worried about x’ or ‘I’ve noticed that you haven’t been seeing your friends as much lately’.

Avoid asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ as this implies that what they’re feeling isn’t normal. Talking about ‘worries’, rather than ‘anxiety’, might work better for your teen. If they aren’t comfortable talking about these things face-to-face, you could try texting about it, to ease them in.

If they still don’t want to discuss what’s bothering them, don’t push them. Let them know that you’re here for them if they ever want to chat. You could also suggest that they might feel more comfortable talking to another family member, such as a close aunt or cousin, or another trusted adult.

What expectations and boundaries can I have when my teen has anxiety?

When your teen is having mental health difficulties, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. How far can you push them when they're being rude or difficult, or refusing to do chores?

Boundaries are important; but, to get your teen to hear your perspective, lead with compassion and validate their feelings and experiences. Use ‘I’ statements such as ‘I understand you’re having a tough time with x’, or ‘I know that x isn’t easy for you right now’.

Clarify expectations around their behaviour and what’s not okay, such as hurting people or damaging property. Be open with why you have concerns – for example, it’s because you care for their safety and about how they treat others.

Be prepared to pick your battles. Some things you can let pass; others, you can’t. Try letting go of trying to control them and aim to influence them instead. The adolescent brain is more responsive to reward than loss, so rather than using punishments for negative behaviour, offer up rewards for positives.

Why does my teen makes impulse decisions? Why don’t they ask me for help first?

Teen behaviour is affected by their stage of brain development. When they are emotional and irrational, it’s not personal, even if it feels that way. Changes in the brain are occurring that make them more focused on reward and recognition. Also, the areas that handle impulse control and planning don’t mature until their mid-twenties, so they’re more likely to make quick and risky decisions than you are.

And remember: their experience of being a teen is different from what yours was. They’re also more likely to turn to their peers, rather than to you, and to listen to their peers’ advice, rather than yours.

Managing anxiety at home

What can I do if my teen doesn't want my help, and doesn't want professional help?

If your teen is refusing to engage in strategies you suggest or refusing to see a professional, it's difficult for them to feel better and can be discouraging for you. You can look to role models they respect (e.g. a celebrity or teacher they admire) and point out strategies those people use that your teen can identify with. Leverage your teen’s strengths and likes – for example, creativity, dancing, music – for ideas on how they can engage in more self-care.

Notice and compliment them on what they are already doing – ‘I noticed you … went for a walk … showered’ – to encourage them. You can see what self-help apps or resources are available online and share them with your teen.

Rather than focusing on fixing things, try spending time together with no other motivation than just to enjoy doing that.

If my teen's routine has been disrupted, should I force them to exercise or do their usual hobbies?

If your teen's routine has been disrupted or they're not exercising or doing their usual hobbies anymore, it can be tempting to try to force them to do these things. It’s best to be realistic and to aim for influence, rather than control, with your teen. Reward their positive behaviour and offer incentives to get involved, rather than forcing or punishing them.

Go for role modelling and leading by example, and show that you are still exercising and doing things you enjoy. Focus on the activities that they like and are still doing, and encourage them to do more of those.

Professional support for anxiety

My teen has sought help for anxiety from many professional services, but doesn’t seem to be improving. Where can we go from here?

First, work with your teen to find out what they have and haven’t liked about the support they’ve received. Give them a say in the kind of support they seek. For example, if face-to-face professional help isn’t for them, they could try an online program or attend a support group instead.

What involvement do you have in their treatment? If your teen won’t attend support sessions, could you attend them and get feedback about supporting your teen? Here are some more ideas for what your teen can do if treatment isn’t working for them.

How can I help my teen adjust after a period of inpatient admission?

You can work with your teen’s health professionals to identify what is needed and make a plan of action. Discuss your role with these professionals, stay in communication and keep your teen in the loop.

Work out a schedule that sets out what you’ve agreed to do – for example, you’ll check in with your teen every three days, or you’ll work with them for ten minutes each day on the activities you’ve agreed on. If you can’t see much improvement over time, talk with their health professionals and revisit the plan.

Remember: self-care is as important for you, the parent, as it is for your teen. So, include regular activities for yourself, as well as for your teen, in your action plan.

Balancing my own wellbeing and my teen's health

How can I help my teen with their anxiety, when I’m experiencing anxiety myself?

Connect and communicate with your teen to understand what anxiety feels like for them. Accept that, for both of you, it’s okay to have a bad day. Name it, explain it, and encourage your teen to do the same. Practise self-care and work on a family wellbeing plan where all your self-care needs are identified. This will help you to open up an honest discussion and create understanding of, and respect for, each other’s needs.

You can also be a role model for your teen by prioritising care for your own anxiety. Talk to your GP or another mental health professional in the first instance. You could explore additional options for yourself, like meditation, exercise or a creative outlet. There are also many great apps and online videos to support you.

What can I do when I feel like everything to do with my teen is out of my control?

Rest assured that many parents feel the same way. Knowledge is power at this time, so read up on what you can expect when your teen is feeling anxious. You’ll be better prepared and have realistic expectations about how to deal with their behaviour.

Remember that adolescence is a stage of development; you can still build a connection with and show up for your teen, even when it feels challenging! Where you do have control is in how much effort you put into connecting with them, and in ensuring that this means something to them. They might look like they’re pushing you away, but they need your support and notice when you give it.

You also have control over how you communicate and respond to their behaviour. Tell them how you’re feeling. To avoid blaming, express your feelings with ‘I’ statements like ‘I feel out of touch with x’ or ‘I’m feeling worried about x’. And choose your moments to communicate; it may take a few goes, and that’s okay!

Did you find what you needed?

  • I need to know more – If you need more information after our anxiety FAQs, read our fact sheet on teen anxiety.