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Anxiety in Teenagers: What to Look For and How to Help

Stressed out. Overwhelmed. Concerned. All different words to describe one common experience: ANXIETY. Right now, the number of teenagers being affected by it is at a all-time high--so how do we help them?

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about something that feels out of control or around the belief that something bad will happen. It is something that is present from childhood through late adulthood and is an important way that our mind and body keep us safe. The problem is that when anxiety gets too high, particularly before coping skills are developed, it can really be detrimental to functioning in areas such as social, school/work, and home life.

Adolescence is a particularly stressful period of life, with the natural stressors of social and emotional development along with the pressures inherent in the academic and extra-curricular performance arena. In fact, the National Institute of Health reported that 31.9% of teens have some type of anxiety disorder and that over 46% of teenagers have shown new or worsening mental health symptoms since 2020.

We are facing a serious crisis right now with the mental health of our teenagers, so let’s first look at the different ways that anxiety is expressed in this age group.

Signs of Anxiety in Teenagers

Anxiety can look very different across a person’s lifespan—especially during adolescence. Here are some of the signs:

  • Extreme Expressions of Stress: Worrying about the same issues repeatedly, overwhelmed by normal tasks, panic attacks (rapid breathing, shaking, crying)

  • Changes in eating and sleeping: Loss of appetite and eating disturbances, insomnia, exhaustion or seeming to be consistently worn down

  • Mood changes: Increased sensitivity and crying episodes, frequent self-doubt or criticism, irritability

  • Compulsive behaviors: Nail-biting, tapping hands/feet, and picking skin

  • Negative Behaviors: Increased defiance, substance use, sneaking out, cutting classes

  • Social changes: Decreased socializing with family and friends, loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed

  • Changes in self-care: Avoidance of showering or showering multiple times per day, multiple changes and/or difficulty choosing clothing for school

  • Physical symptoms: Stomach aches, headaches, nausea/vomiting

  • School Issues: Not turning in homework, poor grades, asks to stay home from school

Now that you know what to look for, the question is what should you do if you if you see these signs and suspect that your teenager is suffering from anxiety. We all know that having conversations with teenagers can be challenging, especially when trying to talk about difficult topics such as feelings and mental health. Below is a structure for talking to teenagers that can remembered with one word: BELIEVE

BELIEVE – How to Talk to Your Teen

B – BODY: Assess your body to make sure that you are feeling calm and open. If this isn’t the case, do some deep breathing, listen to calming music, etc.

E – ENVIRONMENT: Ask your teenager to come into a neutral/safe space to talk. This may be the living room or even their bedroom and definitely should not have any siblings or other adults within earshot.

L – LISTEN: Try to show your teenager that you are fully available to LISTEN to what they have to say without judgement. This can be demonstrated via touch (on shoulder, hug, etc.) or just by asking them to sit down with you to talk.

I – IDENTIFY: Begin the conversation by IDENTIFYNG their emotion: “I am wondering if you are feeling anxious/scared about school/friends” And then LISTEN.

E – EMPATHIZE: After IDENTIFYING what the emotion is, if your teenager admits that they are feeling anxious, you need to EMPATHIZE with what they are saying by saying something like, “I understand how you could feel that way” and trying to learn more about their experience. If you teenager denies that they are feeling anxious, you can follow-up with an empathizing statement such as ““I can imagine if I were in school and had to deal with the pressure that you deal with, I would feel anxious/scared for many different reasons.” And then LISTEN.

V – VULNERABLE: If they continue to deny their emotional experience, you can then try to be vulnerable by talking about your own feelings around returning to work, the effect of the pandemic, etc.

E – END: If they still won’t talk or admit to any negative emotion, simply END the conversation with: “Well, if you ever do feel those negative feelings and just need support, please know that I care about you and can make the time to listen.”

Many teenagers are suffering, but parents should BELIEVE that they can connect and help them to find the solutions that will assist them in overcoming any obstacle that they face.

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