Anxiety is an unsettled, restless, uncomfortable state of mind that can affect people of all ages. Anxious teens may feel worried, stressed or panicky and can experience anxious feelings occasionally or frequently, mildly or intensely. Teenagers who have a lot of anxiety – the kind that interrupts their sleep, interferes with their functioning or causes them intense stress – should be seen by a mental health professional for assessment. Anxious feelings range all the way from normal levels of stress and worry that most people experience, all the way to symptoms of bona fida anxiety disorders – it takes a professional to determine what is going on when anxious feelings are anything more than minor and occasional.
What Triggers Teen Anxiety?
The teenage years are times of high stress, hard decisions and strong emotions. Teen anxiety can be triggered by many events in the teen’s life such as a broken relationship, a parental divorce or academic pressure in school. In addition, teenagers are living in a fast-paced, constantly changing world which creates its own pressure – there is no time to be still and settle in. Social pressures are particularly intense for this age group: kids worry about fitting in, feeling accepted, developing relationships, handling peer pressure and more.
What Parents can Do to Help?
Parents can be part of the problem or part of the solution. For instance, parents can put excessive pressure on teenagers by being too disapproving, too critical or too punitive. On the other hand, they can help relieve stress by being both accepting and gently guiding. They can offer encouragement, praise and validation, keeping the parent-child relationship primarily positive in the ideal 90-10 ratio that is healthiest for this age group (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for details about building a positive relationship with teenagers). Empathetic listening, ready humor and general acceptance go a long way to helping teens feel confident and emotionally secure.
Moreover, parents can guide teens toward activities that provide stress relief such as sports, drama clubs, volunteer work, and even part-time jobs. Parents can also encourage downtime, family fun (board games, outings, hobbies) and even cooking! A short vacation or even a few hours out of the house for some one-on-one quality time can often work wonders with an adolescent. Parents can even play some relaxing music in the house to help set a calm mood. Of course, reducing family stress (no yelling, fighting, marital battles, etc.) will also help reduce teen anxiety. If parents are experiencing stress of their own, they shouldn’t share it with their teens but rather with other supportive adults.
There is a difference, however, between normal levels of worry and stress and levels that would be best treated with professional help. If a parent notices the following symptoms of anxiety, he or she should discuss them with a doctor and/or ask for a referral for to a mental health professional (preferably and adolescent specialist) for assessment:
- Inability to follow through with usual routines (like getting to class on time, doing homework, doing one’s household chores, keeping one’s room cleaned, grooming oneself properly and so on)
- Compulsive thoughts (inability to stop thinking about/worrying out loud about certain topics)
- inability to make a decision without excessive input from others
- Peculiar habits (i.e. arranging things, checking things, excessive washing, lengthy praying, repeating words or phrases, needing excessive rituals, refusing to touch certain things, wearing gloves inappropriately, and any other strange behavior
- Agitated behavior (shaking, inability to settle down, stay still, sleep)
- Disturbed sleep patterns (insomnia, early waking, nightmares)
- Strange or excessive fears or worries
- Refusal to go certain places (like malls or parties) or be with certain people or engage in age-appropriate social activities due to anxious feelings
- Chronic unhappy or irritable mood
- Addictive behavior (may stem from anxiety)
- Self-harm such as cutting oneself, picking at one’s skin (may stem from anxiety)