Having a teen with anxiety often makes parents anxious, too. Watching your child navigate life while dealing with anxiety brings up ongoing questions and concerns about their behaviors and choices. Did they pick at their dinner because they’re feeling anxious, or were they just not hungry? Do they seem especially quiet because they’re struggling? Or is it just because of that big test they have tomorrow? It’s difficult to know what to say and what not to say, when to take action and when to stay quiet and let your teen work through the challenges they’re facing.
The Difference Between Anxiety and Worry
Not only do teens have to navigate the challenges of living with anxiety, they may also suffer from societal stigma around anxiety, including misconceptions about what it means to have an anxiety disorder. Peers, friends, and even family members may think that having anxiety simply means worrying too much. Hence, these attitudes can isolate and demean those who suffer from clinical anxiety.
Let’s explore the differences between anxiety disorders and worrying:
- Worry means dwelling on troubles, difficulties, or uncertainties, most often concerns about the future or things that are out of our control.
- Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fears and distress that are out of proportion to the situation, and impair a teen’s ability to function normally.
The Prevalence of Anxiety Among Teens
Anxiety is very common among children and teens. A 2018 study found that up to 20 percent of teens suffer from an anxiety disorder. Common anxiety disorders include phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and separation anxiety disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also categorized as an anxiety disorder.
Therapy is considered the most successful form of treatment available for a teen with anxiety. The most commonly used form of therapy for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps patients become aware of irrational or negative thinking so they can see situations more clearly and learn to process and respond to their anxiety in healthy ways.
How Do I Talk to My Teen About Anxiety?
One of the best ways to talk to your teen is actually to listen. Setting aside focused time when you can be available and approachable will help to facilitate conversation. Anxiety is not always easy for a teen to understand or put into words. Therefore, this is not a two-minute conversation—it involves daily listening, watching for clues, and being trustworthy and empathetic. Asking questions without judgment can help parents learn more about where your child stands. Guiding the conversation with questions like “How does that make you feel?” and then actually listening to the responses can help parents and teens find mutual ground.
What teens really need to hear when they are suffering from any type of anxiety disorder is “You are not alone.” Helping your teen to find support and read about others with anxiety disorder can also help them to feel validated. Understanding that this is not their fault and there is hope that their life can improve may also give them courage and empower them to seek proper treatment for their anxiety.
What Should I Not Say?
Teens can detect statements that lack empathy or understanding. Statements like these can build walls of misunderstanding and create further distance between parents and children.
Here are some examples of what not to say to your teen:
- Stop worrying.
- It’s all in your head.
- Snap out of it.
- Don’t be so dramatic.
- You just need to relax and calm down.
None of these statements are true or helpful for someone who may already be debilitated by anxiety, and may not understand what they’re going through. When your teen’s mind is already overwhelmed with fears and negative thoughts, well-meaning but inappropriate statements that demean their struggle or blame them for feeling anxious will only serve to increase the anxiety.
How to Help a Teenager with Anxiety
The more parents know about anxiety disorders, the better prepared they are to be supportive and understanding. That begins with knowing teenage anxiety symptoms, which include the following physical and emotional red flags:
- Nervousness and agitation
- Nausea and dizziness
- Increased heart rate
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and anger
- Sleep disturbances.
If a teen has some or all of these symptoms, they might have an anxiety disorder. Hence, seeking a proper diagnosis and discussing appropriate care with a licensed professional is an essential first step for helping a teen with anxiety. Teens need a good therapist who is experienced in treating anxiety in teens. Supportive parents can involve the teen in selecting a therapist to ensure that they are comfortable with their methods and that they feel comfortable with this person. It’s also vital to ensure that a teen will have ongoing access to therapy for anxiety—whether that means a dependable ride to the therapist’s office or a reliable internet connection for telehealth appointments—without further stress.
Finally, when parents are open about their own mental health concerns, it creates a safe environment for teens to share their own experiences. Moreover, when parents place high value on positive mental health routines—such as daily self-care, exercise, regular therapy appointments, and healthy eating habits—teens learn to prioritize their own well-being and mental health.
J Postgrad Med. 2018 Apr–Jun; 64(2): 75–76.