Teens and Anxiety: Spotting it and Addressing it

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By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC

Modern adolescence looks nothing like what it looked for you when you were a teen. Music, hair, catch phrases, technology – those change through each generation I suppose. But we’re talking about differences in values and expectations, as well as significant cultural changes. These days young people are exposed to gender issues, terrorism, violence, pornography and more. If regular life creates stressful situations and can produce anxiety, then these days, just be a teen is to be immersed in an anxiety inducing environment. How can parents understand and help their adolescent to cope and process their anxieties in productive ways?

The National Institute of Health reports that the lifetime prevalence of any anxiety disorder among children ages 13-18 is 25%. Anxiety disorders would include Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobia, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That is a very significant portion – 25%. But the other 75% surely go through anxiety provoking experiences as well, and even though they don’t reach the level of a mental illness, they are troubling and can be difficult to navigate. Often times, these stressful situations are more difficult for adolescents due to their age and lack of life experience, their still forming brains, the hormonal changes they are going through, and their developmental stage that involves the formation of their identity.

All teens wrestle with the issue of fitting in, finding their self worth, figuring out what they are good at, concerns about their future, and the whole social dynamic, including relating to the opposite sex. They are also usually wrestling with this evolving relationship with their parents and their parent’s values and expectations. And of course the whole peer pressure thing fits in there somewhere.

Kids can be dramatic, irritable, withdrawal, and downright obstinate and disrespectful. Often when I talk about descriptions of anxiety, parents will say, “that sounds like every teen.” So, how as a parent, can you tell the difference between normal teen behavior and anxiety issues, and then how can you help?

  1. Beware writing off anxiety as “normal teen behavior”. Just because a young person seems to be just like “any other teen” is not enough reason to ignore the issue or make assumptions. This is a big reason why much childhood anxiety goes untreated.
  2. Symptoms such as: increases in irritability, isolation, moodiness, changes in eating or sleeping habits, changes in social groups, an increase in secrecy, and decline in academic performance can indicate anxiety, or other emotional difficulties.
  3. Also be aware of behavioral changes such as: decrease in attention to hygiene or dress (depression or anxiety), increase in difficulty with focus or attention span, forgetfulness, spaciness, jitters, and an increase in somatic complaints i.e. headaches, fatigue, stomach discomfort.
  4. One general consideration on differentiating between depression and anxiety: anxiety is more likely to be observed in terms of increase in agitation and movement and expression – worry, heightened moods, jitters, whereas depression is more likely observed in a retardation of expression and movement. However, both conditions can be present together, so observing one does not rule out their co-existence.

Okay, so let’s say you have observed some changes or behaviors that have you concerned. Let me offer some suggestions.

  1. Don’t panic or hound your child about what is wrong. If you behave in worried and anxious ways and make a big deal out of it, you could be fanning the flames of anxiety and worry and cause them to pull away and not reveal their inner struggles.
  2. Instead, be strategic and try to get into your child’s world even more. Aim to ask questions that portray curiosity rather than intrusion.
  3. If they are bringing specific worries and fears to you, don’t jump to rescue them and fix the problems – even though they are struggling.
  4. Instead, focus more on their thoughts and emotions than on the problem and invite them to process those with you.
  5. Affirm them. Listen to them. Help them to come up with strategies and ideas by asking them questions to direct them in thinking through their options.

In these ways you will be building your relationship with them; they will learn to trust you and learn that they can come to you to help them to process their inner struggles and they will know that you believe in them.

Having a trusted place to work things out is a significant part for any of us to lower our anxiety level.

If you would like to talk with me about a specific challenge, please call our office at 407-647-7005.

Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.


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