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    Navigating Teen Anxiety: Signs, Support, and Solutions

    Posted May 22, 2024, 12:00 am by Austin Davis

    Does your teenager suffer from anxiety? It’s more common than you might think. Teenagers experience a relatively high level of a wide range of anxiety disorders, evenly distributed across age groups from 13-17 years. According to a report cited by the National Institute of Mental Health:

    • Nearly 32% of adolescents have some type of anxiety disorder.
    • More girls (38%) than boys (26%) suffer from anxiety disorders. 
    • Of these teens, over 8% suffer from severe impairment.

    A British study identified a high prevalence of anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among girls. During the pandemic, 13% were diagnosed with anxiety disorders — twice as high as pre-pandemic. Over 26% presented with anxiety symptoms.

    Other studies have shown that adolescents’ post-COVID-19 anxiety and depression levels are significantly higher than before 2020. The Child Mind Institute reported in 2018 that more than:

    • 19% of teens have a specific phobia.
    • 9% of teens have social anxiety disorder.
    • 7% of teens have separation anxiety.
    • 2% of teens have a panic disorder.
    • 2% of teens have Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

    KFF cited the recently released Teen National Health Interview Survey, which asked for teens’ input. It revealed that 21% of adolescents ages 12-17 had experienced symptoms of anxiety in the past two weeks — alarming data we cannot overlook.

    What Makes Anxiety in Teens Special?

    Occasional anxiety is normal for everyone with worries about health, money, or family problems. However, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear — the anxiety does not go away and can worsen over time. 

    As children reach adolescence, their focus shifts to concerns with their bodies, peer pressure to fit in, and feeling the weight of expectations from parents and school. This shift in focus can lead to some teens developing social anxiety and panic attacks. 

    Parents and teachers may discount these attacks as typical teen moods when, in fact, the teen is struggling. The impact of social media, online appearances, and cyberbullying can also heighten anxiety and negatively affect teens’ mental health.

    Signs of Anxiety in Teens

    Teens can experience several types of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, and various phobia-related disorders. This anxiety interferes with daily activities like schoolwork and performance, jobs, and interpersonal relationships.

    Anxiety manifests in different ways. You should try to determine whether your teen’s behaviors are typical or perhaps something more serious requiring medical intervention.

    Physical signs can include trouble sleeping, excessive fatigue, muscle tension, headaches or stomachaches, and changes in eating habits. Mental signs can consist of persistent worry, racing thoughts, or difficulty concentrating. Emotional signs can manifest as restlessness, irritability, or quick to anger, as well as:

    • Unexpected crying spells.
    • Recurring fears and worries about daily life.
    • Excessive self-consciousness.
    • A constant need for reassurance.
    • Extreme sensitivity to criticism.
    • Avoidance of social activities or challenging or new situations.
    • Significant drops in grades or refusal to attend school.
    • Substance use.

    Helping Your Teen Navigate Anxiety

    Anxiety in teens is often, but not always, found in families where the parents may also suffer from anxiety. Here are some tips that can help you and your teen manage anxiety.

    First, create a supportive home environment and champion open communication, which will help your teen feel heard. Acknowledge your teen’s anxiety, listen empathetically, and brainstorm with your teen to help them find solutions for addressing and overcoming their fears.

    Learn more about how anxiety works so you can gain a better perspective for yourself and your teen — and when your teen expresses feelings of anxiousness, sit with it for a bit to avoid overreacting. Take breaks if you feel overwhelmed or triggered by your teen. Doing so might include a little introspection to increase self-awareness of your own behavior and how it may interact with or influence your teen’s behavior. 

    Set a good example for your teen by practicing healthy coping skills and stress management: walking, meditating, chatting with a friend, curling up with a book, or listening to music. This modeling can help your teen manage their own stressors more positively.

    Above all, know that you’re not alone. Develop a support system outside your family where you can express your concerns or anxiety, gain insight, and develop ideas for helping your teen. This support system might include professional help from your doctor or a therapist.

    Tools For Teens

    Teens face a multitude of pressures. Their anxieties often stem from striving for perfection, the college admissions process, extracurricular activities, and social pressures. Unlike adults who are more secure in their identity, teenagers are still building confidence and learning who they are.

    One reason teens may struggle to manage their own anxiety is that they don’t yet have the tools to do so. When you acknowledge your teen’s challenges, whether you choose to engage a therapist or not, you can also help your teen by encouraging them to use these self-help techniques:

    • Lean into your social support network, both formal and informal.
    • Use apps, social media, text, or video chat to connect with positive people.
    • Make time each day to meditate or use a quick meditation for specific situations causing anxiety
    • Engage in a creative activity like writing, art, or playing music.
    • Get physical to burn off some anxiety. Go for a run, shoot hoops, play with the dog or a sibling, or even dance to a favorite song.
    • Eat healthy snacks and meals.
    • Prioritize getting a good night’s sleep to restore your body and mind.
    • Keep a mood diary to track your feelings — use a scale of 1-10, or jot a few words summarizing how you feel.

    Another option? Try mindfulness relaxation techniques. The 3-3-3 rule is one mindfulness technique that’s popular because it works. Name three things you can see. Identify three sounds you can hear. And move three parts of your body. Doing so will ground you in the present moment.  

    Treatment Options

    Anxiety disorders are some of the easiest mental health disorders to treat effectively. Yet anxiety is often called “the invisible condition” because no one talks openly about it. Doctors and other professionals may ignore or misattribute symptoms to other issues.

    Parents may suggest that their teens seek professional help and explore different therapy options. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying and changing unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors. It helps teens reframe their perceptions, negative thoughts, and concerns to a more positive mindset and may be combined with exposure therapy to undesired or challenging situations. 

    Another newer approach is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT differs from CBT in addressing negative thoughts. It emphasizes accepting uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as a natural part of life and teaches psychological flexibility to navigate complex emotions without getting caught up in them. ACT employs mindfulness exercises, acceptance strategies, and value clarification exercises.

    Family Therapy may also be beneficial, especially if there are family communication issues, anxiety among family members, or conflict. Therapists can help families develop healthy communication skills, fostering open and honest conversations about fears and concerns, and allowing teens to feel heard and understood. Family therapists equip families with problem-solving skills to navigate challenges related to their teen’s anxiety. Everyone learns to approach issues collaboratively, fostering a sense of teamwork and shared responsibility.

    Anxiety is often linked to low levels of serotonin, which plays a role in mood regulation. Antidepressant medications — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) — increase the availability of serotonin, which can help improve mood, reduce negative thoughts, and ease feelings of anxiety. 

    Final Takeaways

    As parents and caregivers, it’s hard not to feel alone and worried when you see your teen experiencing anxiety. Listen with empathy and without judgment. Validate their feelings, letting them know you understand and are there for them. Think of your role as understanding your teen’s anxiety, not fixing it. Ask open-ended questions and try to see things from their perspective.

    Learn about anxiety disorders and available treatment options. Knowledge empowers you to support your teen more effectively and navigate this challenge together. While anxiety is a common experience for teens, there are resources available. Anxiety feels overwhelming in the moment, but there’s hope. With support and possible treatment, your teen will learn to manage their anxiety and thrive.

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    Austin Davis

    Austin Davis

    Austin Davis is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor in Texas, with a professional background that includes local church ministry and clinical counseling. His experiences in state and public mental health hospitals have equipped him with a profound understanding of teen's mental health disorders. Austin’s main passion is directing Clearfork Academy, a Christ-centered residential facility for mental health and substance abuse for teens, where he takes pride in working with challenging clients. Beyond his professional life, Austin cherishes being a husband and father, actively participates in his local church, and enjoys physical activities, reading, woodworking, and music.

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