Anxiety, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect
Anxiety is very common among teenagers, especially when they’re faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Anxiety is a normal reaction to challenging situations.
For most teenagers, anxiety doesn’t last and goes away on its own. But for some teenagers it doesn’t go away or is so intense that it stops them from doing everyday things.
Teenagers with disability or chronic health conditions are more likely than their peers to experience anxiety, especially if the disability or condition is unpredictable or significantly affects their daily lives.
For example, 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 because of their disabilities or conditions
- not achieving what they want in life
- being burdens on their families
- getting sicker, relapsing or dying.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety in teenagers with disability or chronic conditions
Teenagers with disability or chronic conditions generally show the same signs and symptoms of anxiety as other teenagers.
But when children have disability or chronic conditions, it might sometimes be hard to distinguish the physical signs of anxiety, like sleep problems, from the physical symptoms of their conditions.
If your child has a disability or chronic condition, you can also look out for other signs of anxiety. These might include:
- avoiding social events or sleepovers if this means doing treatments or taking medications while she’s out
- worrying excessively about appearance
- refusing to have procedures or go to hospital
- being concerned about transferring to the adult health care system.
Helping teenagers with disability or chronic conditions deal with anxiety
There are many practical ways to support your teenage child with disability or a chronic condition through anxiety.
Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with anxiety or an anxiety disorder. They include acknowledging your child’s fear, gently encouraging your child to do things he feels anxious about, and listening actively when your child wants to talk about his 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 her health condition. Teenagers can get a lot of misinformation about their conditions from the internet or friends.
- Talk regularly with your child about his 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. This can help your child feel a sense of control. For example, could your child choose certain foods within a diet, or where to go for treatments?
- Help your child learn to manage her own health care. For example, you could start by giving your child time alone with health professionals to talk about her condition.
- Try to make home treatments less stressful. You could take the focus off them by building them into usual routines like getting ready for dinner or brushing teeth.
- Talk with your child about how he could explain his condition to new people. Role play might help your child feel more confident to talk about his condition.
Relationships and feelings
- Acknowledge your child’s fears and assure her that many teenagers feel anxious from time to time.
- Help your child find a peer network for teenagers with disability or chronic conditions. This could be a face-to-face group or online.
- Encourage your child to use the education support that some children’s hospitals provide. This can be a way for your child to build new friendships.
- Help your child develop a plan to keep up with schoolwork and friends when he’s away for treatments.
- Spend time with your child doing activities that she enjoys.
- 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.
Getting help for anxiety
If you think your child needs help dealing with anxiety, it’s a good idea to get professional support as early as possible. Your GP or the professionals working with your child can refer you to a psychologist.
Looking after yourself
Caring for a child with a disability or chronic condition can be stressful. It can also affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.
You might find it helps to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- make use of respite care to have a break.