Teens are worried. They’re worried about themselves, they’re worried about their chances in the world, they’re worried about the state of things. And between a pandemic, lockdowns, the news, and social media, teens have been getting more steadily worried in the past two years than perhaps ever before.
It’s normal to worry. There are many things in life that can be described as uncertain at best, and teens are caught in the middle of many awkward moments.
They’re not quite children, but they aren’t adults either, meaning they’re struggling to juggle newfound responsibilities while still facing an inevitable lack of agency. Becoming a teen also means accepting change on a near-daily basis.
Physical changes, social changes, societal changes. In addition to growing responsibilities, teens are subjected to new hierarchies and environments, a switch from middle to high school and college, thoughts about careers, and “adult” problems, from safe sex to avoiding drugs.
But anxiety is more than worry. There’s a difference between having a hard time and being paralyzed by fear. There’s a difference between moments of anxious thought and uncertainty, and a constant feeling that things aren’t right. There’s a difference between worrying about exams, or catching up to others in height and growth, and experiencing panic attacks, frequent self-deprecation, and difficult, intrusive thoughts.
It’s also very difficult for most parents to differentiate between anxious thoughts and normal teen behavior. Teens aren’t little kids anymore, and many of them are quite good at hiding their emotions. But there are still telltale signs that parents need to beware of and symptoms that require attention.
How Anxiety Can Affect Teens
Beyond the usual worries, an anxiety disorder can be a debilitating issue for a teen. Anxiety disorders are the most common kind of mental health disorder, affecting roughly 30 percent of adolescents.
Anxiety disorders are known for their characteristic symptoms of paralyzing fear or worry, but it’s worse than that. Many anxiety disorders are coupled with physical symptoms, as well, from hyperventilation to full-blown panic attacks.
Teens can learn to mask these feelings, hiding the fact that they’re struggling to breathe or feeling their heart racing in what would otherwise be considered completely normal circumstances. To a teen with anxiety, certain situations that are otherwise non-confrontational or dangerous can become an insurmountable source of stress.
Some teens deal with these overwhelming emotions by finding ways to avoid the things that cause them to panic, even indirectly, such as by complaining about headaches or stomachaches. In many cases, these somatic pain symptoms are real, caused by the stress associated with the anxiety.
These anxious thoughts can slow personal growth, as well. Kids diagnosed with anxiety disorders have a harder time concentrating and retaining information. They will have a harder time learning and understanding what they’ve learned. They may still be more than capable enough of passing classes and delivering good grades, but at a great cost to their mental wellbeing.
In fact, while anxiety can make it harder to learn, many anxious kids become overachievers to the detriment of their health. Caught in a cycle, they’re fueled by a fear of underperforming, which further feeds the anxieties that make it harder for them to perform.
What Are Teenagers Anxious About?
There are many reasons to be anxious as an adult. Prices are skyrocketing, we’re in the aftermath of multiple successive recessions, world markets are still reeling from a historic pandemic, wages remain stagnant, and more. Yet teens can feel these anxieties as well, and many understand them the same way adults do.
Anxious teens are worried about the world they’re growing into, on top of their own pressures to perform well, get into a good college, find a great paying job early on, pursue their dreams, find their dream, be in a relationship, and juggle a million other perceived responsibilities and expectations – many of which they are placing upon themselves.
Expectations serve as a massive underlying foundation for teen worries and anxieties, especially unrealistic ones. Even supportive parents who work hard not to define their wishes for their teens may find an anxious teen grappling with massive expectations for themselves.
The body is another common source of anxiety for teens. Teens are worried about being too short. Too tall. Too fat. Too skinny. Not muscular enough. Not strong enough. Not fast enough. They want a smaller nose, or a bigger nose, or different hair, or better skin, or a different jawline, or a different voice.
Couple these anxieties with the fact that teens experience growth spurts at different points in their adolescent lives, and they become massively magnified. Some kids in school look like they’re 19 at age 15 and are naturally gifted athletes. Others might look like they’re 12 despite approaching senior year.
What Parents Can Do
It can be challenging to parent a teen with anxiety issues. They’re often much harder on themselves than you could be on them, and they might not be very receptive to praise or affirmation.
Offering your support is an important first step. Give your teen a safe space at home to talk about their feelings and their worries, to rant and discuss how they really feel. Talk to them about getting help together to seek effective ways to reduce the pressure they feel and help them thrive.
Group therapy and family therapy are good alternatives to one-on-one therapy if a teen feels uncomfortable going into therapy alone for the first few times. In addition to therapy, doctors can help your teen by prescribing medication that might reduce the severity of their symptoms, enough to help therapy achieve a greater impact in the long term.
The catalyst for change in many cases of anxiety is a teen’s own capacity to identify and correct their self-destructive or irrational thoughts. But it takes time, patience, and a lot of support to overcome the impulse to be self-critical or self-loathing and focus on the positives for a change.
Getting Help for Teen Anxiety
Teen anxiety issues can be co-dependent on other mental health problems, including depressive thoughts or teen drug use. A proper treatment plan encompasses a teen’s issues in their entirety, treating the person, not just the diagnosis. Be sure to find someone your teen likes working with, someone they trust and can confide in. Comfort is important.