What to Do When Your Teen Shows Signs of Anxiety

Diane Foster is no stranger to anxiety. But contrary to what you might think, she knows all about the disorder not because she suffers from it personally, but rather because her 15-year-old son does, and has, since before he was a teenager. 

At first, Diane said it was hard to recognize that her son’s panicked behaviors were more than just the typical young boy acting out. It was when her firstborn, Connor, confided in her that he was being bullied at school because he preferred working with his dad on the farm to the typical middle-schooler‘s love for sports. It was then that she realized something was going on.

Now, after five years of trial and error trying to help Connor deal with his anxiety, Diane has learned that the most important thing to help your child with the disorder is to always believe and listen to him or her. 

“Had I taken Connor more seriously when he was in elementary school, he maybe wouldn’t have dealt with such bad anxiety for so many years. We often think anxiety is something only adults deal with, but that is very false,” Diane said. 

Do Children Even Experience Anxiety?

According to Katherine Tarnoff, LMFT, “Anxiety can be a very normal part of childhood and adolescence.” 

One may wishfully think that anxiety in children is not a “normal part of childhood,” as we all desire children to grow up safe, happy and without worries, but sadly that is often not the case. Many variations of events, stresses and forces can cause anxiety, even at a very young age. It isn’t just adults with their mounting bills to pay and busy schedules who develop anxiety. 

Children and teens change so quickly, so there’s a lot for their brains and bodies to process. If there has ever been an experience of trauma for the child or teen, anxiety may be a part of some of the symptoms they continue to experience after a traumatic event. “Experiences of bullying, ridicule, cultural and racial discrimination or bias may also contribute to feelings of anxiety,” said Tarnoff. 

To further prove how common anxiety is in children, Dr. Erin Rossello and Dr. Carin Laue from the Acorn Family Guidance Center in Los Angeles offer these thoughts. “Research indicates that most anxiety disorders begin in childhood or adolescence. There is variation in the rate of prevalence, but the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that the lifetime prevalence of ‘any anxiety disorder’ in studies with children or adolescents is about 15% to 20%. The most frequent disorders among children and adolescents are separation anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and social phobias.” 

It could also be argued that anxiety in children is more prevalent today than in the past as well. 

“Growing up in the age of advanced technology, there is so much data and information online that comes at us so rapidly, it is impossible to keep up with and overwhelms our sensory input. This can cause anxious tendencies in children/teens if they are constantly connected in this way,” explained Tarnoff. 

What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children?

When one thinks about anxiety, they often picture the stereotypical picture of hyperventilating panic attacks. For some, that’s exactly what anxiety looks like, but for others, and especially for children, it can often be very different. In order to be there for your child with anxiety, you first have to identify that they even have it. 

Typically a parent should be concerned if the anxiety symptoms are interfering with normal daily functioning on a consistent basis. In other words, if the anxiety is causing problems in the child’s functioning at school, home, in the community, or with peers,” said Dr. Rossello and Dr. Laue. 

To add on to that, it’s not uncommon for a child who is complaining of a stomachache or a headache to actually be dealing with anxiety instead. 

“Somatic symptoms are common responses to anxiety; however, young children might not make those connections. If your child is refusing to go to school or repeatedly expressing that they don’t want to go, that might be a sign of an underlying anxiety disorder,” the two doctors say. 

Then there are the more outward signs of anxiety where a child may throw a tantrum, act defiantly or have unexpected, unexplained outbursts of anger. These signals are a result of the brain’s natural reaction to “fight” in the fight-or-flight model. When this is activated, it can also increase other big emotions like intense anger. 

Another less-frequently considered a sign of anxiety is if your little one is asking you constantly “what if” questions. “That might be their brain’s way of trying to get answers to the many unknowns swirling around in their heads,” Dr. Rossello and Dr. Laue explain. 

Finally, issues sleeping, the need for perfectionism, and the inability to handle change are all also signs of anxiety. These are just a handful of ways you can begin to recognize your child’s anxiety disorder. The next step is to then believe the signals when you see them. 

How to Help Your Child With Anxiety: Listen Up

As you can see, there’s no denying that anxiety in young people is a real problem. So how can parents help their child with anxiety once they realize they have it? First and foremost, you must believe their feelings are valid. 

“It is important for a child’s support team to take their feelings seriously. As a community, we can normalize feelings of anxiety, so children understand that this is a common and often normal feeling and that there are strategies that we can use to cope with this feeling. In fact, the more we expose our children to feelings vocabulary, the better chance we have of our children telling us their feelings, instead of showing us with their problematic behaviors,” said Dr. Rossello and Dr. Laue. 

So often, people with anxiety express that one of their biggest pet peeves is when a person just tells them to “calm down.” It’s a common misconception that simply relaxing will relieve anxiety, but in reality, a person suffering from anxiety likely doesn’t even know what’s causing them to feel panicked in the first place and as a result, they can’t ease their mind. 

For children, brushing off their struggles and telling them to calm down can be especially damaging. When a child is told to toughen up, instead of receiving the nurturing support they need, it teaches them to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as avoidance.  

“One common error parents make is saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be ok.” While this may be true, comments like these will likely not reduce that child’s anxiety. A better approach is, “I can tell how worried you are. I would feel worried too if I were in your shoes. If you keep sharing your thoughts and feelings with me, I think we can figure it out,’” said Dr. Rossello and Dr. Laue. 

Just like Diane learned with her son, listening with intent and belief is one of the most important things a parent can do to help their child with anxiety. 

How to Help Your Child With Anxiety: Educate Them

Anxiety is confusing, plain and simple. For full-grown adults, experiencing anxiety is still incredibly mind-boggling. You quite literally cannot pinpoint why you’re upset half the time. So can you imagine how a child who isn’t fully developed and doesn’t know how to adequately express themselves feels? Confused is an understatement.  

That’s why it’s imperative that parents work to explain to their kids why they are feeling the way they are. The sooner a child can grasp what’s happening to them, the more rapidly they’ll learn how to cope with their anxiety. 

“Talking to your child, knowing how they feel about who they are, where they go to school, teaching them how to listen intuitively to their bodies and giving them self-exploratory space rather than pre-defined expectations of how and what to be,” are advices that Tarnoff gives to parents. 

How to Help Your Child With Anxiety: Provide Resources

After helping your child grasp their anxiety, it’s then of the utmost importance to provide them with resources to help them with it. A child who’s struggling with anxiety should have the option of seeing a therapist as only a trained professional can fully provide the skills needed to deal with such disorders, along with a space they can go where they feel safe and valued. 

“Is there a school counselor, an after-school activity or group that they can join where they can feel acknowledged and appreciated and seen in their experience of who they are. Give them opportunities to learn healthy coping strategies by modeling them such as learning how to relax the body through breathing, walks, etc,” said Tarnoff. 

How to Help Your Child With Anxiety: Medication

As a last resort, some parents consider putting their child on anti-anxiety medications. For some, this is the answer, while for others it offers little relief. 

“When Connor was taking anti-anxiety medications, he reacted poorly and had constant side effects to deal with. A more natural approach fit our lives better,” said Diane. 

Professionals agree that medication shouldn’t be considered until all other options are exhausted.  

Having anxiety as an adult is scary. Having anxiety as a child is even scarier. Watching your loved child suffer from anxiety is crippling. For parents who want nothing more than for their kids to be happy, doing all they can to help their offspring work through their disorder is the only option.

Photo credit: Unsplash by Laurenz Kleinheider