What is anxiety?
Everybody feels anxious sometimes, especially when faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Anxiety can include body signals like ‘butterflies’, a sinking feeling, tense or uncomfortable feelings, or ‘nerves’.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to challenging situations.
Anxiety in teenagers
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 stressful time, which can cause anxiety.
For example, teenagers might worry about starting secondary school, looking a particular way, fitting in with friends, sitting exams, performing in plays at school or going to school formals. Sometimes they might even have irrational concerns about the world ending.
Also, as their independence increases, teenagers might worry about being responsible for their own actions and getting jobs.
For most teenagers, anxiety is part of the normal range of emotions. It’s usually just temporary and goes away on its own.
Managing anxiety: helping teenagers
Managing anxiety is an important life skill. If your child shows signs of anxiety, you can offer support in several ways.
Helping your child face anxiety
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it. It’s important for your child to feel that you take him seriously and that you believe he can overcome his fears. He also needs to know that you’ll be there to support him.
- 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.
- Help your child set small goals for things that make him anxious. Encourage him to meet the goals, but don’t step in too early or take control. 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.
- Try not to make a fuss if your child avoids a situation because of anxiety. Tell your child that you believe she’ll be able to manage anxieties in the future by taking things step by step. Try to acknowledge all the steps that your child takes, no matter how small those steps are.
Helping your child explore and understand feelings
- 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 teenagers feel anxious too.
- Help your child understand that it’s normal to go through a big range of emotions and that sometimes these can be strong emotions.
- Listen actively to your child. By listening, you can help your child identify his thoughts and feelings, which is a good first step to managing them.
- If your child has trouble talking about anxious feelings, suggest she uses a diary or journal. Writing down anxious thoughts and feelings could help your child.
Giving your child love and support
- Show your child affection – for example, by hugging him and telling him regularly that you love him. Your love and care helps reduce anxiety.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’.
- Try to be a good role model for your child in the way that you manage your own stress and anxiety.
Thinking about your family life and routine
- 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.
- 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 alcohol and other drugs, as well as unnecessary stress.
Getting help for teenage anxiety
If you think your child needs help dealing with anxiety, ask for professional help as early as possible.
You might feel uncomfortable talking to your child about anxiety or other mental health problems. But by talking about anxiety with your child, you give her permission to talk to you. Your child also needs your help to get professional support.
Options for help and support include:
- school counsellors
- psychologists and counsellors
- your GP – sometimes teenagers are more comfortable talking to a GP who doesn’t also see their parents, or to a younger doctor or a doctor of the same gender
- your local community health centre
- local mental health services.
If you’re unsure where to go, your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.
Anxiety problems and disorders
Most normal anxiety goes away quickly – perhaps in 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 enjoy daily life.
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?