Today’s teenagers are facing unprecedented levels of anxiety, and it can be difficult to know how to help. Read on to learn some key points to keep in mind when helping the teens in your life.
What does anxiety look like in teenagers?
When it is formally diagnosed, anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety disorder, but many teenagers experience anxiety symptoms without meeting the criteria for a formal diagnosis.
Anxiety in teenagers can look very much like how it presents in adults (racing thoughts, uncontrollable worry, physical symptoms like racing heart and gastrointestinal issues, feeling “keyed up”, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, etc.)
It can also show up in some unexpected way. Perfectionism, anger or irritability, self-esteem challenges, and withdrawal are all common with anxious teens.
While the world has made great strides in reducing the stigma of mental health challenges, many teens still struggle to express what they’re going through, and it’s not uncommon to see no outward signs of anxiety, despite an intense inner struggle.
Teenagers face a different world than any past generation
Between a pandemic, school shootings, and the climate crisis, teenagers are experiencing both the “normal” anxieties of teenage years along with major existential fears that can hang over their heads every day.
New CDC data looking at the most recent years of the pandemic shined a light on how the pandemic has amplified an already existing mental health crisis in teenagers. This study discovered that 37% of high school-aged students reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.
A recent survey from the Pew Research Center asked teens how worried they were about the possibility of a shooting happening in their school. 57% of teens responded that they were either somewhat or very worried. Over half of teens have this on their mind regularly, and the effect it has on their mental health is significant.
They are also acutely aware of what is happening in the world around them because of increases in access to information. In some ways, this is a good thing. When it comes to anxiety, it can bring new fears that previous generations simply weren’t as aware of during those formative years.
It’s a lot to manage while you’re figuring out your identity, experiencing a rapid amount of change, and trying to figure out what your life will look like.
Ways to help a Teenager with Anxiety
Listen to and believe their fears
First and foremost, teenagers need the adults in their lives to acknowledge their thoughts and emotions. What they are worried about may not feel like a big deal to you, but it is to them and that’s all that matters.
Imagine for a moment if you were worried about something, and when you told a friend they responded with something like “oh don’t worry about that”, or “it will be fine”. Not very helpful, right?
Teenagers are no different. They need space to express and process their fears, and to do that we have to honor their feelings and emotions even if it might differ from how you feel.
Establish routines, safety, and security in your home
Routines and rituals are a major component of what helps us feel safe and secure in our environment. You may not be able to take away their anxieties outside the home, but you can make your home a place that feels safe.
This is not to say that you need to have rigid structure and routines, but try to find several things that are relatively consistent in your home, so your teenager knows what to expect.
Maybe it’s dinner time being around the same time every night, or Sundays being movie night, or that you go on a walk every day after school. These small moments give teenagers opportunities to feel like the world around them is a little less chaotic, and ideally, they’ll give you moments for connection too!
Encourage them to challenge their anxieties when they’re ready
It can be tricky to toe the line between wanting to help your child challenge their fears, and not pushing them too hard. Many adults find themselves on one side of the spectrum; either removing all uncertainty and chance for anxiety to be triggered, or they come from the perspective of not wanting to make their teen less resilient and don’t steps to protect them from anxiety.
The best approach is somewhere in the middle.
It’s not helpful to shield teenagers from every possible thing that could cause anxiety. In fact, it can increase anxiety because they won’t have experiences of the anxiety not coming true, which helps their brains see it as less of a threat.
It’s also not helpful to let (or make) your teenager face anxiety-producing situations without support or protection. Facing anxieties before they’re ready can lead to panic attacks, and again worsening anxiety because they felt anxious about a situation, and then that anxiety was reinforced because it did go poorly.
Instead, try offering options of how you can support them, and offer to be with them when they’re ready to face the anxiety. For example, if a teenager is struggling with social anxiety, offer to go with them to certain places that are anxiety-producing, and try to find small things you can encourage them to do on their own, while you are still there for support.
Model regulating and challenging your own anxieties
You might not think your teenager is still learning from what you are modeling, but they absolutely are. They’ll see your anxiety coping strategies, and likely try them out themselves (healthy, or not!).
They’ll also build confidence in their own resiliency when they watch you manage anxieties. Let your teenager in on some of your own challenges and how you overcome them, but be mindful not to overshare and put them in a position of feeling like they have to comfort you.
Anxiety has a genetic component so it’s likely that one or more parents also experience anxiety symptoms, whether or not they’ve been formally diagnosed. Managing your own emotions and anxieties in a healthy way is critical to helping your teenager manage their own.
If you aren’t already, now would be an excellent time to seek your own therapy, both so you can model to your teenager that it is normal and ok, but also so you can learn ways to keep yourself regulated and coping with anxiety well.
Help them build healthy routines and self-care practices
It’s not uncommon for teenagers to very clearly not want the adults in their lives to dictate their schedules or routines, and that should absolutely be respected. It can be helpful, however, to offer opportunities for improvements in self-care.
Offer to go on walks or find a movement method they enjoy. Make time for their favorite activities and make sure they have the tools and resources to do what helps them relax.
You can gently help them notice what habits seem to influence their anxiety levels (sleep, nutrition, fresh air, etc.) but be sure to monitor how they receive this information, for many teens it can feel overbearing and frustrating. If that’s the case, step back and continue offering the things you know will help them feel better.
Create regular opportunities for discussions
Some teenagers want to talk about their anxieties often, and some keep them bottled up and rarely speak about them. Either way, the adults in their lives can help them by providing space to discuss them.
Even if the teenager in your life is the type to want to talk about anything but their anxieties, they’ll know that you cared enough to check in and that they have a space to confide if they ever want to.
Try phrases like:
- “Here if you want to talk”
- “I’ll always listen if you want to tell me about what’s going on”
- “Want to cook [their favorite meal or snack] and tell me about it?”
- “That sounds like a lot, if it would help to talk it through, I’m here.”
Offer professional help
It’s important that teenagers be able to talk to people in their lives, but it can be equally important that they have a safe and trusted space outside of their personal lives to process what they’re going through.
Offer to help them find a therapist or provide the information needed so that they can look on their own. Some teenagers will want their adults to help them through the process and even attend the first session with them, while others will want to be fully in charge.
It’s important to note that if your teenager is attending therapy, they have a right to confidentiality, and you will need to respect that. When you just want to know how to help, it can feel hard to not know what’s happening in your teenager’s sessions. Continue offering to be a person they can talk to and when or if they are ready, they may share what they’re learning.
Learn what their anxiety looks like, and how they like to receive support
It’s important to remember that a teenager’s anxiety may not look like you would expect. They may not be shy and timid, frightened, and have low confidence. Instead, they may look scattered, overproductive, or angry. Anxiety affects teenagers differently, and knowing the what their anxiety looks like is important.
If you have or know teens who are “the ones you don’t have to worry about”, meaning the honor roll, never been in trouble, always polite teenagers, they need to be checked on too. For many teenagers, shrinking themselves to be as “perfect” and as minimally problematic to the adults in their lives is a way to cope with anxiety, or it may even be the driver of their anxiety.
The angry presentation of anxiety is especially important to decipher. A teenager experiencing anxiety may look a lot like a “disrespectful” teen who is lashing out, getting into trouble, and disconnecting from their family/loved ones. It doesn’t excuse all behavior, but it’s important to look beyond the outward presentation and see what might really be going on for them. Harsh discipline for misguided attempts at coping with anxiety can exacerbate the problem.
Resist the urge to blame anxiety on an outside source
Today’s teens are exposed to a level of technology and social media connection that is far different than what most adults experienced in their own teenage years. When you don’t know why a teenager is struggling, it can be tempting to want to find something to blame, and for many adults that is their phone and social media.
What many adults also don’t realize (because they don’t have the same first-hand experience) is that today’s teenagers also use their phones and social media as anxiety coping strategies. They can connect with other people experiencing similar things, look up strategies and education about what they’re going through, and access tools like guided meditations, mood trackers, and soothing music.
Of course, we should try to help teenagers establish healthy boundaries around technology and social media use, but it’s important to acknowledge that teens use those platforms for so much more than just sharing funny pictures and texting their friends.
When we blame a teenager’s anxiety on an external source like technology, the group of friends they’re spending time with, or a romantic partner they’ve chosen, we’re invalidating their struggle, and in turn, blaming them.
A teenager is highly unlikely to stop doing something just because their parent told them it’s not in their best interest. Instead, continue offering the other kinds of support and alternatives we’ve talked about here, and make sure they know they can come to you.
If the thing you wanted to blame their anxiety on truly is a factor in their anxiety, come alongside them while they figure that out. They’ll remember your support and trust in them rather than your judgment of their choices.
If you have a teen in your life struggling with anxiety, focus on what you can help with, rather than all the things out of your control. Try the tips discussed here, but ultimately remind yourself that helping a teenager learn to cope with anxiety is a process that can take time, and may have many ups and downs along the journey.