9 Tips in Helping Teens with Anxiety | The Parental Guide to Your Teenager’s Anxiety
Updated: Jul 15
Takeaway: In this post, I will explain the causes and signs of teenage anxiety. I further expand on understanding your teenager with anxiety, how to help teens with anxiety, and what teen anxiety treatments to look for.
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Over the 11 years of providing therapy, I have always felt passionate about helping teens with anxiety. I still remember vividly what it was like to be a teen, doing everything you could to avoid disappointing your parents, and trying to figure out how to be happy. I worried if I was good enough and if my friends would really see and understand me.
Most teenagers - if not all - deal with some sort of anxious season or struggle with anxiety throughout their whole adolescence. My passion as a teen therapist in Orange County is to walk alongside the teenagers of today to help them manage their anxiety and provide support so they feel seen and heard, and guide them in building confidence in their ability to tolerate and reduce their anxiety with tools and strategies.
We live in an anxious world. Not only do adults have to deal with daily pressures and responsibilities, but teenagers have their own expectations, social pressures and standards around performance, relationships, all while trying to figure out who they are and how to be an adult. Teens can feel lonely and out of control when attempting to manage their thoughts and anxious responses on their own.
Parents of teenagers can help teens with anxiety by observing the signs of teenage anxiety, understanding what their teenager is going through, and using specific strategies to lower their teenager’s anxiety.
What Causes Teenage Anxiety?
You might be wondering how your teenager got anxiety in the first place. The causes of teenage anxiety come from a combination of biological components, genetic factors, learned behaviors, and environmental stressors. In this article, we are going to focus on environmental stressors. Environmental stressors consist of stressors that happen in your teenager’s environment that have significantly affected their mental health. Focusing on eliminating and lowering environmental stressors can help teens with anxiety.
Here are some common stressors that might have caused anxiety in your teenager’s life:
Adjustment: moving schools or geographical locations
Teasing or bullying at school
A traumatic event
Sudden loss of a loved one
Abuse and neglect in the home
Relationship conflict or friendship betrayal
Academic pressure and performance
Loss of a friendship group
Difficulty meeting parental expectations
Chronic high levels of stress
Minimal to no boundaries
Why is Teenage Anxiety on the Rise?
According to the NIMH, an estimated 32% of adolescents (ages 13-18 years old) have lived with an anxiety disorder. The two most common anxiety disorders amongst teenagers are generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety. After the pandemic, teenagers have absorbed another layer of uncertainty and unpredictability that has exacerbated their anxious sufferings.
The COVID shutdowns took a toll on teenager’s mental health. Research has found that from pre-pandemic to now, the number of teenagers experiencing anxious and depressed symptoms have doubled. Teenagers are in a critical developmental stage of learning who they are outside of the family unit and becoming a part of a peer group. It is within teenager’s friendship groups where teens learn how to use their social support system in times of distress and build meaningful connecting relationships. With virtual learning and having to be away from their peers for quite some time, teenagers were impacted emotionally and mentally. Teenagers are still attempting to recover from the aftermath of the shutdowns.
Social media is another factor affecting teenage anxiety. Social media provides the opportunity for teenagers to be constantly visible and connected with each other. This constant connectivity can be problematic in dating amongst teenagers and within teen friendships. There is an expectation to always respond, react, and be in contact with peers even during family time, alone time, sleep, and during school and homework time. Boundaries get blurred and are hard to define when teenagers are in constant connection with their peers via social media. Too high of expectations and very little boundaries can increase stress and anxiety amongst teens.
Signs of Anxiety in Teens
Anxiety in teenagers can be easily detected and at other times, not so visible. Teenagers may internalize their anxiety where symptoms can manifest through physical symptoms.
Some signs of anxiety in teens consists of:
Irritability: Teens who are frustrated easily, demonstrating attitude, or appear to be “snappy” with their peers and adults.
Constant worrying: Teenagers worry about the future, appearance, performance, past mistakes or choices, bad things happening, or concern of others.
Somatic symptoms: Somatic symptoms can look like stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, nightmares, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, chest feels tight or “an elephant is sitting on their chest.”
Easily upset: Teens might cry often, be easily sad or overwhelmed.
Withdrawn: Teens might withdraw from friends, preferred activities, and family time.
Academic performance: There might be a sudden drop in grades, difficulty focusing, overstudying, high expectations on tests and homework, and/or refusal to go to school.
Social issues: Teenagers who have social issues might be avoiding large crowds, not initiating conversations, or meeting new people, difficulty standing up for themselves, or saying no and having boundaries. In addition, teenagers who have anxiety might be in constant conflict with their friends.
Self-harming behaviors: Teenagers engaging in self-harming behaviors such as cutting to reduce emotional distress.
Low self-esteem: Teens who are struggling with anxiety are having difficulty managing their thoughts and feelings and will tend to be hard on themselves, speak self-loathing comments, defeating attitude, or highly critical of themselves.
Panic attacks: Anxious teens might have suffered from one or more panic attacks.
Another way to recognize anxiety in your teenager is how YOU feel around them.
Parents of teenagers may feel like they are walking on eggshells around their anxious teens. You have no idea if what you say or do will help or make things worse. You feel scared or nervous to say anything about how they are doing and how they are managing their anxiety, for fear your teen will blow up or not talk to you at all. You may avoid them because their anxiety or anxious energy can feel easily absorbed and become your own. I have heard multiple parents say to me, “You love them, but you don’t like them.” Observing your teenager’s anxiety triggers your own anxiety. This is when you know your teenager has anxiety.
Understanding Your Teenager with Anxiety
Having anxiety symptoms tells us we are having difficulty managing our stress. Our bodies and minds have been undergoing stress for too long and the stress is becoming unmanageable. Stress and anxiety are more signals than they are “good or bad.” Feeling stressed or anxious can actually keep us safe or protect us by thinking about the consequences of our actions or even being aware of unsafe surroundings.
“Bad Anxiety” sets in when our signals are out of balance, and they are going off at the wrong times. Think of it like an alarm system! If a teenager is walking to their car at night in a deserted parking lot, they will get a “stress” signal that indicates potential danger and to be on alert. Now, if a teenager is suffering from anxiety their stress signal goes off multiple times when there is no danger present. They are essentially getting false alarms of potential threats and danger throughout the day.
The Good Aspects of Anxiety
When helping your teen with anxiety, it is important to understand the good aspects of anxiety. The benefits of anxiety can look like; feeling motivated to study for a test or be on time for an event or deadline. We tend to evaluate our interactions with others and push ourselves to be better personally and socially. Anxiety might help us get prepared, focused, and put forth effort before a speech or project. Aspects of anxiety can drive us to set goals and be determined in accomplishing those goals. Teenagers who strive to be perfect value the good aspects of their anxiety, however, they struggle with balancing self-care and having self-compassion.
What are Teenagers Anxious About?
Some common things teens are anxious about are:
Fear of not doing well and disappointing their parents and others.
Some teenagers feel intense pressure to get straight A's and meet high expectations. Most teenagers going into their junior year of high school feel that it will be their hardest, most serious, and critical year to get into college. The inaccurate message that is sent is, “If you screw up, you have no future.”
How others think of them.
Teenagers struggle with feeling confident and secure while they are figuring out who they are. Teens worry if they will appear stupid, incompetent, or do something embarrassing in front of their classmates or friends.
Worried about missing out, especially on social media.
Teenagers are in constant contact through social media which means they are getting updates on who is hanging out with who, who is liking or commenting on their posts, and how everyone is doing. The constant connection becomes the set standard so when teens actually take a break from social media, have alone time, or decide to not spend time with friends, they are still inundated with what events or opportunities they are not taking part in.
Their changing bodies.
Most teenagers struggle with their body image and worry about their appearance. There is a significant amount of growth mentally and physically within the adolescent years. Teens struggle with liking, accepting, and feeling confident in their appearance, clothing, and in their bodies. Thus, it is hard not to worry about what other people think of your appearance or comparing your image to others.
Teenagers nowadays are being bombarded with local and global news updates. Typically, news outlets share more negative and scary updates compared to positive stories. Not only can you find news updates on the radio, podcasts, newspapers, television, grocery newsstands, and internet browsers, but teenagers are also getting notifications on their social media apps as well. According to the AACAP, children who are exposed to the news multiple times a day may experience stress and anxiety.
How to Help a Teenager with Anxiety
1. Listen more than you think
Gauge to see if your teenager is up for questions. Sometimes too many questions can feel overwhelming and investigative for your teen. Listening and letting them know you are right there, and you are not going anywhere, is the perfect thing you can do to help your teenager with anxiety.
2. Normalize their anxiety instead of trying to fix it
When parents see their teenagers with anxiety, parents want to fix it and go into problem solving mode. Why? Because, as parents, we feel and absorb their anxiety. It is difficult to watch our children struggle with anxiety. Instead of trying to fix it, normalize their anxiety by saying “I have felt anxious and nervous before. It’s normal to have those feelings. Some things can be really scary.”
Ask: “What do you need right now?”
3. Model healthy coping skills
Your teenager is watching and observing you. When your teens feel like they can’t manage their stress or anxiety, they will look at you and go, “Well, how do my parents deal with their anxiety?” Modeling healthy coping skills and doing your self-care activities in front of your teenager will help your teenager to use those self-soothing strategies as well.
4. Check your own anxiety
When your teenager is in an anxious state, they are very keen on their parents’ energy state. If you are anxious, it will only make your teenager even more anxious. One of the top things you can do to help a teenager with anxiety is to stay calm and take it a notch down or two. Bring your energy level down so they can mimic your calmness.
5. Guide them to ride it out
If your teenager is in an anxiety or panic attack, guide them to ride it out. The more a teenager fights an anxiety attack, the worse it gets. Remind your teen that they are safe and to breathe. These are especially useful tips in helping a teen with anxiety.
6. Praise your teenager when they have accomplished something brave
Be aware of when your teenager has overcome something anxiety provoking and point it out. Let your teenager know that they were brave and courageous. This will reinforce the confidence and effort it took for them to manage their anxiety. Plus, parents are pinning that brave accomplishment to the memory board so that when they get anxious again, they have an experience to look back on.
7. Be supportive, not accommodating
Being supportive doesn’t mean allowing your anxious teenager to avoid the anxiety provoking situation. In the long run, avoidance doesn’t help you manage your anxiety, it reinforces the anxiety. Instead, listen to their worries, understand their discomfort and feelings of fear, then help them take gradual steps in tolerating their anxiety during those anxious situations. The goal is for your teenager to increase tolerance of discomfort and build confidence in managing anxiety, not avoid it.
8. Self- soothing activities
Trying out new self-soothing activities with your teenager can help them with their anxiety. Figure out what activity they gravitate towards. Self-soothing tools can lower their nervous system and calm their bodies. This includes sensory based activities such as walking, coloring, drawing, painting, fidget toys, stress balls, smelling essential oils, or playing with clay or kinetic sand.
9. Get professional help
Lastly, if you notice that you are doing all these things and your teenager’s anxiety still feels like it isn’t getting better, it might be a good time to look for professional help. Talking to a mental health professional can help teens feel supported and identify effective strategies and tools that work for them.
Teen Anxiety Treatments
When you have noticed your teenager’s signs of anxiety, their inability to manage their stress and anxiety, and the helpful strategies don’t appear to be making any headway, it’s time to investigate teen anxiety treatments.
The first step into finding effective teen anxiety treatments would be finding a mental health professional who specializes in specific therapeutic approaches and modalities that would be successful in reducing anxiety and helping your teenager become confident in managing their anxiety.
Look for a therapist that is a right fit for your teenager. This can be daunting and confusing, at first. Most teenagers are reluctant to go to therapy because of the stigma of mental health. Teenagers do not want to feel like they are the problem. They believe that therapy is only for really significant mental health concerns, and it is uncomfortable and scary to begin.
Here are some helpful tips on finding effective teen anxiety treatments:
1. Find a mental health professional:
Seek a therapist, social worker, psychologist, and/or psychiatrist that specializes in working with teenagers. It is crucial to find a mental health provider who is passionate about working with teens and knowledgeable about adolescents. Your teenager will have a higher chance of developing a therapeutic alliance with a therapist who has experience and enjoys working with teenagers.
2. Look into a therapeutic modality or approach that is effective for treating anxiety:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) - examining a teenager’s negative ways of thinking, increases insight into learned patterns of unhelpful behavior, and builds a set of coping skills to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Mindfulness Training - helping a teenager become attuned to their bodies’ response to anxiety by being mindful and present to where and what they are doing. When we practice mindfulness, we can be in the moment, take a pause, read our body and what it needs, and become aware of the anxiety without judgment.
Exposure Therapy - utilizing gradual steps to expose the individual in anxiety inducing situations or things to help the teenager use their coping skills and gain confidence with managing their anxiety.
Psychodynamic Therapy - looks at how past experiences and conflicts affect current relationships, thought patterns, and interactions. The goal of psychodynamic therapy is to gain awareness and resolve how the past influences the teenager’s current behaviors.
3. Consider enrolling your teenager into a therapeutic support group:
Teen Group Therapy - joining in a therapeutic support group is a great teen anxiety treatment option. Group therapy is a helpful opportunity for teenagers to learn social skills, ways to manage stress and anxiety, setting limits and boundaries, enhancing strengths and building confidence.
Helping teens with anxiety starts with being aware of the signs, understanding what teens are anxious about, understanding causes of anxiety, and walking alongside their journey of managing their anxiety.
Learning how to help your teenager with anxiety is going to create the best chance for success in building your teenager’s confidence. Implementing strategies and tools to take care of themselves and reduce anxiety.
If you are wanting even more helpful tips, check out my FREE anxiety guide where I give you 14 effective techniques you can use today to help reduce your teen’s anxiety.
Need extra support for you or your teenager:
At Ashley Hudson Therapy, I help teens develop coping skills to manage their anxiety and build self-esteem to feel comfortable in expressing themselves and seeking emotional support from friends and family. If you are in the state of California, schedule a free consultation today.
In addition, I offer parent coaching through my self pace online parenting course called The Connected Parent.
If you are looking for a sneak peek of the parenting program, check out The Connection Mini Course for $27. You get 4 lessons on how to ignite connection fast with your teenager in less than 1 hour for a fraction of the cost. Get Access Today for Just $27!