What is anxiety?
Everybody feels anxious sometimes, especially when faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Anxiety can include ‘butterflies’, a sinking feeling, tense or uncomfortable feelings, or ‘nerves’. It’s a normal reaction to challenging situations.
As children become teenagers, their boundaries expand. They have new challenges and opportunities. They want more independence. And their brains change. Because of all these changes, adolescence can be a particularly anxious time.
For example, young people might worry about starting high school, how they look, fitting in with friends, sitting an exam, performing in a play at school, or even irrational concerns about a parent dying. As their independence increases, they might worry about being responsible for their own actions and getting a job.
For most young people, anxiety is part of the normal range of emotions. It’s usually just temporary and goes away on its own.
Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. Feelings of anxiety can help to keep young people safe by getting them to think about the situation they’re in. Anxiety can also be a helpful tool for motivating teenagers to do their best. It can help them get ready for challenging situations like public speaking or sporting events.
Helping young people manage anxiety
Learning to manage anxiety is an important life skill. If your child shows signs of anxiety, you can offer support in several ways:
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it. It’s important for teenagers to feel that you believe they can overcome their fears. They also need to know that you’ll be there to support them.
- Let your child know that anxiety is normal. Tell your child about your own worries as a teenager, and remind your child that lots of other young people feel anxious too.
- Be a good role model for your child in the way that you manage your own stress and anxiety. You can read more about stress management in our article on feeling stressed.
- Gently encourage your child to do the things she’s anxious about. But don’t push her to face situations she doesn’t want to face. You can also wait until your child actually gets anxious before you step in to help.
- Consider setting your child small goals in relation to things that make him anxious. Provide plenty of support and encouragement. For example, your child might be anxious about performing in front of others. As a first step, you could suggest your child practises his lines in front of the family, or works as a stagehand for the school play.
- Support your child in facing her fears. Acknowledge all the steps that she takes, no matter how small those steps are.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’.
- If your child avoids a situation because of anxiety, don’t make a fuss. Let your child know that you believe he will be able to manage anxieties in the future.
- If your child has trouble talking about anxious feelings, suggest a diary or journal. It could help your child to write down thoughts and feelings.
- Spend time with people your child likes, trusts and feels comfortable around.
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle for your child, with plenty of physical activity, sleep and healthy food and drink. It’s also important for your child to avoid drugs, alcohol and unnecessary stress.
- Make time in your family routine for things that your child enjoys and finds relaxing. These could be simple things like playing or listening to music, reading books or going for walks.
Getting help for anxiety
If you think your child needs help coping with anxiety, seek professional guidance as early as possible.
You might feel uncomfortable talking to your child about anxiety or other mental health problems. By talking about anxiety with your child, you give her permission to talk to you. Your child also needs your help to access the necessary professional support.
Options for help and support include:
If you’re unsure where to go, your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.
Your child might not want to talk to you about how he’s feeling. He might even say there’s nothing wrong. If so, you could suggest a confidential telephone counselling service for young people, such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800). Your child could also visit the Kids Helpline website
Anxiety problems and disorders
Most normal anxiety is short-lived – perhaps a day or a few hours. An anxiety problem is when anxious feelings:
- are very intense
- go on for weeks, months or even longer
- get in the way of a young person’s ability to learn, socialise and do things necessary for development.
An anxiety problem could be diagnosed by a health professional as an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is a mental health problem.
If you’re worried that your child might have an anxiety problem or disorder, ask the following questions:
- Is my child’s anxiety stopping her from doing things she wants to do? Is it interfering with friendships, schoolwork or family life?
- How does my child’s behaviour compare with the behaviour of other young people the same age?
- Is my child extremely distressed by feelings of anxiety?