Want to know how to help a teen with anxiety?
It’s normal and reasonable for teens to worry about test scores, trends in fashion and physical appearance, or whether their crush knows they exist. But anxiety disorders go above and beyond the normal or reasonable.
A teen with an anxiety disorder will feel worried at the unlikeliest of times. Sometimes, their fear will come from nowhere.
Here’s how to help a teen with anxiety.
What is Teen Anxiety?
Most people experience anxiety at some point, whether it’s a physical and mental reaction to the possibility of losing a job, or the stomach-churning experience of looking down at rush hour from the roof of a tall building.
But anxiety disorders take this emotion and distort it to the extreme or stretch it out across many scenarios.
Generalized anxiety, for example, is characterized by fear, worry, and stress that constantly affect a teen to the point that they feel tired and sad most of the time, without really knowing who or what to blame. Social anxiety, on the other hand, can give people a sense of dread and even panic at introducing themselves to a stranger or having to converse with a distant acquaintance.
Teen anxiety affects over 30 percent of adolescents, of which about 9 percent struggle with severe impairment – to the point that it impacts them in their daily life, at home, or at school. More than a single collection of symptoms, anxiety disorders refer to a number of different mental health conditions that involve feelings of undue or overwhelming stress and worry.
Anxiety is a mental health issue, but it has physical consequences. Long-term stress from anxiety can affect the body just as it affects the mind. Teens with anxiety often struggle with co-occurring physical conditions and mental health issues with physical symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome, eating disorders, insomnia, obesity, and an increased risk of heart disease and hypertension later in life.
Helping a teen with anxiety is easier said than done. But you can do a few things as a parent, friend, or close relative.
Learn More About Anxiety
If you have never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before or personally known someone in the family who struggled with anxiety, consider taking the time to talk to your teen’s doctor or therapist and ask questions about how their anxiety works, where or when it might have started, and what seems to make it worse.
Talk to your teen, too. Let the know that you want to understand how and when they feel anxious, so you can work with them to minimize their anxiety in daily life and help them get a leg up against their symptoms.
The worst things you can do include being completely dismissive in the name of tough love (“just pull yourself together!”), or ignore your teen’s issues entirely, and hope that treatment will make them go away. There is no cure for an anxiety disorder. Dedicated support from parents and friends is part of the process.
Coping Mechanisms and Lifestyle Changes for Teen Anxiety
In addition to learning more about your teen’s anxiety, there are a few things you can consider implementing at home or focusing on during treatment. These include:
- Helping your teen set up a schedule or daily routine that works best for them and helping them commit to it.
- Spending more time with your teen in nature rather than just encouraging them to be outside more.
- Planning more family time together.
- Limiting your screen time, as well as your teen’s.
- Helping your teen set up and follow a stricter nighttime ritual for improved sleep hygiene.
- Making small changes to the family diet and cutting down on caffeine.
- Encouraging your teen’s hobbies and interests, and helping them find time to hone their skills, no matter what they might be.
Complications for Teen Anxiety
Anxiety can be difficult to treat and manage over time, but other co-occurring conditions can complicate treatment. In teens, these include:
Teen Anxiety and Eating Disorders
Eating disorders commonly co-occur in teens with anxiety and maybe something to watch out for. Types and examples of common eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa: Anorexia involves a very low food intake, often to the point of starvation. Teens with anorexia nervosa will be chronically underweight yet will bemoan that they are “fat” or weigh too much. The primary characteristic of anorexia is an incredibly low or highly restrictive food intake, despite medical advice.
- Bulimia nervosa: Bulimia nervosa is characterized by food binges coupled with multiple different “purging” activities, such as self-induced regurgitation or vomiting and the abuse of diuretics or laxatives. Bulimia nervosa can be more difficult to immediately identify because teens with bulimia may appear in average physical shape, if not slightly underweight or overweight. However, beneath the immediate exterior, bulimia carries a significant risk of stomach and throat ulceration, a chronically sore and inflamed throat, dental issues, electrolyte imbalances, and severe dehydration.
- Binge-eating disorder: Binge-eating disorder is identified in teens who frequently binge eat without the frequent purging element or excessive exercise recognized in cases of bulimia. Teens who struggle with a binge-eating disorder are often overweight and at a greater risk of diabetes and heart issues. They cannot control their intake and will often fall into a cycle of guilt and shame after a food binge, leading to a short-term diet followed by another binge.
- Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): Teens with ARFID follow an incredibly restrictive diet, avoid a large number of foods, and will struggle to eat sufficient calories to maintain physical function. Unlike anorexia, teens with ARFID are not motivated by body image issues or depression. ARFID is not the same as a health-related diet (such as avoiding foods due to food intolerance), or a lifestyle choice like carnivorism or veganism. Teens and adults with ARFID will go against medical advice and often fail to consume enough to grow or live, risking starvation and hospitalization.
Teen Anxiety and Depression
One of the most common co-occurring disorders for anxiety is depression, particularly major depressive disorder.
Depression is a mood disorder characterized by chronically low mood – teens who struggle with anxious thoughts in the long term are more likely to struggle with negative thoughts as well. Addressing one without the other isn’t possible – effective treatment requires an individualized plan that addresses all of a teen’s symptoms, treating them as a whole rather than every single diagnosis.
If your teen has been diagnosed with anxiety and other mental health issues, their therapist can help you better understand how and why these conditions intersect and what you can do to help during treatment.