Most teens get a little anxious about starting school. A certain amount of school-related anxiety is normal for adolescents. But when nervousness crosses over into full-fledged anxiety in school, teens need extra support.
Anxiety disorders in teenagers is increasingly common among adolescents. In fact, studies show that nearly 32 percent of American teens between the ages of 13 and 18 suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point.
Therefore, parents need to know how to recognize the difference between an anxiety disorder and normal levels of anxiety in school.
Back-to-School Anxiety—or a Teen Anxiety Disorder?
There is a significant difference between temporary anxiety over school and an anxiety disorder that requires professional treatment. For example, teens with an anxiety disorder experience very high levels of anxiety. Moreover, these feelings get worse over time, rather than improving on their own.
In addition, teens with anxiety disorders struggle with feelings of tension and fear. These symptoms are ongoing and interfere with daily activities. Furthermore, the disorder affects relationships with peers and family members.
While there are different types of teen anxiety disorders, many of these disorders manifest in a set of common symptoms. Here are some of the signs that a child is experiencing a level of anxiety that warrants an assessment by a mental health professional.
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Withdrawing from social interactions
- Trouble sleeping at night, but often seems fatigued during the day
- Loss of appetite and other changes in eating habits
- Difficulty concentrating
- Extreme mood swings
- Performance dip in school, poor report cards, poor testing results
- Frequent unexplained physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worthlessness
- Using drugs and drinking as forms of self-medication for anxiety
- Avoiding people, places, and things that trigger anxious feelings
Parents who recognize these symptoms in a teen should reach out for support and an expert assessment.
“Every child is different, especially as they mature into adolescence, so parents need to judge behavior and happiness levels based on their intimate knowledge of their unique child, rather than on any checklist that describes the “average” child.”
—Barbara Nosal, PhD, LMFT, LDAC, Newport Academy’s Chief Clinical Officer
High School Anxiety
School and stress seem to go hand in hand for many teenagers. Anxiety at school is very common.
Moreover, anxiety disorders in teens aged 12 to 17 are on the rise. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and adolescence.
Research shows that high school students today have more anxiety symptoms and are twice as likely to see a mental health professional as teens in the 1980s.
Anxiety in College
It’s not just high school students who deal with anxiety in school. In addition, college students experience high anxiety levels.
Anxiety disorders are one of most common mental health problems on college campuses, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Here are some recent statistics from the ADAA:
- 30 percent of college students report that stress negative impacts their academic performance
- 85 percent of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do
- 41.6 percent list anxiety as their top concern
- 24.5 percent of college students reported taking psychotropic medication for anxiety or depression.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Teens
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the most common teen anxiety disorder. Onset can be as early as age 6, but symptoms usually appear around age 11.
This type of anxiety in teenagers involves excessive anxiety or worry over everyday events, which lasts for a prolonged period of time. Teens with generalized anxiety experience intense emotional stress. In addition, they have a range of anxiety-related symptoms, including those listed above. Moreover, teens with GAD typically experience excessive worrying and low self-esteem.
Researchers theorize that the causes of general anxiety disorder include a disruption in how the brain reacts to the signals it uses to identify and confront danger. Fortunately, however, GAD is very treatable.
Effective therapeutic modalities for teen anxiety include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Motivational Enhancement Therapy, and a wide range of experiential therapies. In fact, more than 40 randomized clinical trials support the efficacy of CBT for the treatment of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents.
Social Anxiety in School
Teens with social anxiety find school extremely challenging. Sometimes referred to as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is when a person is overcome with fear and worry in social settings. Therefore, this type of anxiety in teenagers negatively impacts a teen’s everyday activities, including time in school.
Typically, a person with a social phobia experiences intense anxiety that leads to deep feelings of embarrassment and fear of being judged by others. Consequently, a teen with social phobia often withdraws and avoids contact with peers and teachers. Thus, social anxiety can be paralyzing for teenagers in school.
Subsequent difficulties caused by social anxiety symptoms arise in school, at work, and in personal relationships. Therefore, teens who experience these symptoms for more than six months are often diagnosed with social anxiety.
Additional social anxiety symptoms include
- Feeling nauseous
- Nervous shaking
- Unexpected blushing
- Fear of having to talk or perform in front of a group.
Teen Anxiety Attacks
Anxiety attacks often begin in the late teens or early adulthood. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks are reactions to external stressors, such as anxiety in school.
An anxiety attack is typically a symptom of an anxiety disorder. However, not everyone with an anxiety disorder will experience anxiety attacks.
A teenager undergoing an anxiety attack in school might experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Feeling fearful or full of dread
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart
- Cold sweats
- Dizziness and wooziness.
However, anxiety attacks tend to be short-lived. As a result, they pass once the stressor is removed. Therefore, teens with anxiety in school may experience such attacks during the school day, but not at home.
The Link Between Anxiety and Teen Substance Abuse
Research shows that teen anxiety is linked with increased substance use. That’s because teens with anxiety often use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate the painful feelings associated with the disorder. In one study of adolescents aged 13 to 18, teens with a psychiatric diagnosis were four times more likely to have tried illicit drugs.
Another study followed children who had been treated for anxiety disorders. Seven years after treatment, the adolescents who no longer suffered from anxiety were far less likely to abuse substances than those whose anxiety continued.
The study authors wrote, “Research suggests that the [results] of childhood anxiety disorders, if left untreated, can include substance abuse.”
Therefore, treating teen anxiety can also avoid the risk of substance abuse disorder.
Back-to-School Tips for Dealing with Anxiety
Parents can help their teens learn how to deal with anxiety in school. Furthermore, they can serve as role models for stress management.
“The biggest gift parents can give their kids is the ability to cope with stressful situations,” says Dr. Nosal. “And children learn by example. Therefore, parents need to be mindful of how they manage their own stress. In particular, that includes what they say and do in front of their children.”
Moreover, when parents are anxious, children not only sense it, but the stress also trickles down, Dr. Nosal says. “Children today are under enough stress of their own without taking on parental anxiety,” she notes.
Tools for Addressing Anxiety in School
Stress-relief tools give teens new, positive ways to respond to feelings of anxiety in school. Here are some powerful back-to-school tips for parents to share with teens. These approaches can help teenagers counteract school fears and build stress resilience.
Breathing exercises are proven to have a calming effect on the nervous system; simply taking three slow, deep breaths triggers the body’s relaxation response and quiets the “fight or flight” response. This is an exercise that a child or teen can do at a particularly stressful moment without anyone noticing.
Writing in a journal is another evidence-based tool for stress relief. Encourage your child to write a little bit every day about what they’re experiencing, as a way of interpreting and making sense of their emotions.
Sleep and good nutrition go a long way toward alleviating teen anxiety. Without these basics, it’s difficult to restore and maintain inner calm. Parents can help teens learn to practice self-care.
Highlight the positive:
Help your anxious child recall good times from the past, including fun times at school. In addition, highlight positive moments that are happening right now and will happen in the future.
Yoga and meditation:
A large body of research shows that meditation and yoga practices reduce stress. A review study at Johns Hopkins found that meditation is equally effective in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression as antidepressants.
Spending time with good friends:
Close friends can help teens deal with anxiety. Acceptance and support from friends are essential to a teen’s well-being. Therefore, an authentic connection with a caring friend can alleviate anxiety in school.
Connect with family:
The busy school-year schedule can keep the family apart. Everyone has someplace to be or something to do. So make a point of eating together at least one or two nights during the week. Moreover, turn off all devices while you’re eating, so you can focus on the food and each other. As a result, meals become a time for each family member to share what’s been going on in their day and their week.
Get out in nature:
Research has repeatedly proven that time outdoors reduces levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. When teens aren’t in school, spending time hiking or at the beach can help relieve anxiety.
Mental imagery and visualization are powerful tools for enhancing teen mental health. When teenagers practice positive visualization, they learn how to regulate their emotions and relieve stress.
Finally, parents can ask their child or teen what would support them in transitioning back to school more easily. They might have very specific ideas about what would be helpful.
Maybe it’s a new outfit they would feel especially confident in. Or having an after-school plan in place for the first day or two can help. That might be a relaxing family activity, or a get-together with a close friend.
In summary, many teens experience anxiety in school. However, for young people suffering from a teen anxiety disorder, professional help is essential.
Images courtesy of unsplash
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
National Institute of Mental Health
JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368.
Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2011 Apr; 20(2): 217–238.
PNAS July 14, 2015. 112 (28) 8567-8572.
J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2010 Oct;49(10):980-9.
J Youth Adolesc. 2010 Feb; 39(2): 177–188.
J Adolesc. 37(7):1189–1199.
J Consulting and Clinical Psych. 72(2): 276-287.
Social Indicators Research. 2015 April; 121(2): 437–454.