Anxiety is the feeling of worry, apprehension or dread that comes from thinking that something bad is going to happen or that you can’t cope with a situation. And it’s the physical reactions like ‘butterflies in the stomach’, tension, shakiness, nausea and sweatiness, and behaviour like avoiding what’s causing the anxiety or wanting a lot of reassurance.
Anxiety can happen in response to a specific situation or event, but it continues after the situation has passed. Anxiety can happen without a specific situation or event too.
Anxiety is very common in the pre-teen and teenage years. It’s a natural reaction to the emotional, physical and social changes and challenges of adolescence.
Anxiety, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect
Teenagers with disability or chronic health conditions are more likely than their peers to experience anxiety, especially if their disability or condition is unpredictable or significantly affects their daily lives.
Teenagers with disability or chronic health conditions might also have learning difficulties, intellectual disability or difficulties with social understanding that make it harder for them to understand what’s happening around them.
Teenagers with disability or long-term health conditions might feel anxious or worry about:
- having medical procedures like blood tests
- missing out on school, friendships or romantic relationships
- being judged or feeling different because of their disabilities or conditions
- not achieving what they want in life
- being burdens on their families
- getting sicker, relapsing or dying.
These worries can sometimes get in the way of children sticking to treatments or activities that they need to do to stay healthy.
Helping teenagers with disability or chronic conditions manage anxiety
There are many practical ways to help your teenage child with disability or a chronic condition manage anxiety.
Many of these are the same things you’d do for all teenagers with anxiety. They include acknowledging your child’s fears, gently encouraging them to do things they feel anxious about, and listening actively when they want to talk about feelings.
There are some extra things you can do to help your child with disability or a chronic condition.
- Make sure your child has reliable and developmentally appropriate information about their health condition. Teenagers can get a lot of misinformation about their conditions from the internet or friends, which can spark anxiety or make it worse.
- Talk regularly with your child about their condition and answer any questions. It’s a good idea to do this a couple of days before or after health appointments.
- Find ways to give your child choices. For example, perhaps your child could design a menu to suit their medical diet or choose when to exercise.
- Help your child learn to manage their own health care. For example, you could start by giving your child time alone with health professionals or helping them schedule their medical appointments.
- Try to make treatments less stressful. You might be able to make home treatments part of family routines like getting ready for dinner or brushing teeth or suggest things to distract your child, like listening to music or doing relaxation exercises.
- Talk with your child about how they could explain their condition to new people. Role-playing what to say might help your child feel more confident to talk about their condition.
Relationships and feelings
- Help your child learn how to manage their emotions.
- Let your child’s know it’s OK to feel frustrated or angry – for example, because they experience things their peers don’t have to put up with. You can encourage your child to be kind to themselves when they feel this way.
- Help your child find a peer network for teenagers with disability or chronic conditions. This could be a face-to-face group or online.
- Spend time with your child doing activities that they enjoy.
- Try to minimise the focus on your child’s illness or disability.
- Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
- Help your child develop a plan to keep up with schoolwork and friends when they’re away for treatments.
- Work on problem-solving with your child. For example, if your child is anxious about doing a presentation at school, you could work out what’s worrying them about the presentation, then come up with some possible solutions, like practising at home, or focusing on one person in the audience.
When to be concerned about anxiety in teenagers with disability
For most teenagers, anxiety comes and goes quite quickly. But for some teenagers it doesn’t go away or is so intense that it stops them from doing everyday things, like separating from their parents, enjoying social events or getting blood tests.
You might consider seeing your GP or another health professional working with your child if your child:
- constantly feels nervous, anxious or on edge, or can’t stop or control worrying
- has anxious feelings that go on for weeks, months or even longer
- has anxious feelings that interfere with their schoolwork, socialising, medical procedures and everyday activities.
When anxiety is severe and long-lasting, it might be an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders usually respond very well to professional treatment. And the earlier they’re treated, the less likely they are to affect young people’s mental health and development in the long term.
You can get professional help for your child’s anxiety from:
- a school counsellor
- a psychologist and counsellor
- a GP
- your local community health centre
- local mental health services.
If you don’t where to go, your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family. You can also find helpful information on our teens mental health links and resources page.
Your child might not want to talk to you about how they’re feeling, or they might say there’s nothing wrong. You could suggest a confidential telephone counselling service for young people, like Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800. Your child could also go to Kids Helpline – Teens, Beyond Blue or eheadspace.
Looking after yourself
It’s important to look after yourself. If you’re meeting your own needs, you’ll be better able to meet your child’s needs.
You might find it helpful to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- look into respite care so you can have a break.