Normal anxiety, anxiety problems and anxiety disorders in teenagers
Most normal feelings of anxiety last for only a short time – a few hours or a day.
An anxiety problem or anxiety disorder is when anxious feelings:
- are consistently very intense and severe
- go on for weeks, months or even longer
- are so distressing that they interfere with young people’s learning, socialising and ability to do everyday things.
Anxiety disorders can be especially serious for young people, because young people are still developing. If left untreated, anxiety disorders in teenagers can have long-term consequences for mental health and development.
Everybody feels anxious sometimes. In fact, some anxiety can even be a good thing. You can read more about normal anxiety in teenagers.
Symptoms of anxiety problems and anxiety disorders in teenagers
Talk with your child and see a health professional if, over a period of more than two weeks, your child shows these emotional, behavioural, physical and thinking symptoms. Not all the symptoms have to be present for there to be a problem.
Emotional and behavioural symptoms
Your child might:
- feel constantly agitated, tense, restless or unable to stop or control worrying – your child might seem unable to relax
- seem very sensitive to criticism or extremely self-conscious or uncomfortable in social situations
- always expect the worst to happen or seem to worry too much or in a way that’s out of proportion to problems or situations
- avoid difficult or new situations, or have difficulty facing new challenges
- be withdrawn or very shy, or become isolated by avoiding social activities
- feel that he must do a particular action, like touch things in a particular order
- have obsessive thoughts or images that he says he can’t get out of his head.
Your child might:
- have tense or sore muscles
- go to the toilet more than usual
- have a racing heart, chest pain, sweating, headaches, dry mouth, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
- have sleeping problems, like trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking early
- feel short of breath.
Your child might:
- have trouble concentrating
- say her mind is racing and she can’t think straight
- often seem forgetful or distracted
- put things off – for example, have trouble starting or completing schoolwork.
A teenage anxiety problem might be hard to spot. Many teenagers are good at hiding their feelings and thoughts. They might even mask their feelings with aggressive behaviour or withdrawal. There are also several different types of anxiety disorders in teenagers, and not every child will have the same symptoms.
Getting professional help for anxiety disorders in teenagers
You might feel uncomfortable talking to your child about mental health problems. But an anxiety disorder is unlikely to go away on its own. Seeking professional help early for your child is the best thing you can do.
Options for professional help include:
- your GP, who can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family if you don’t know where to go
- school counsellors
- guidance counsellors
- psychologists – you don’t need a referral, but your GP might be able to recommend someone
- telephone parenting hotlines or Lifeline – 131 114
- your local community health centre or local mental health services.
People suffering from anxiety disorders avoid anything that causes anxiety, and this often includes treatment. But professional help for an anxiety disorder is vital to your child’s healthy development. Finding treatment options for your child shows your child that you care and sends the message that your child isn’t alone.
Most anxiety disorders respond well to treatment, particularly if the disorders are treated early. Psychological treatment usually focuses on strategies to help teenagers cope with anxiety. This means that teenagers learn to manage anxiety rather than avoiding it. Teenagers don’t usually need medication, but health professionals might prescribe it under certain circumstances.
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, like Kids Helpline for teens – 1800 551 800. Your child could also go to Kids Helpline – Teens.
Supporting your child with an anxiety disorder at home
If your child shows signs of anxiety, there are some general strategies you can try at home. If your child is being treated for anxiety by a professional, you should discuss these strategies with the professional first.
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it. Let your child know you’re there to support and care for her.
- Gently encourage your child to do the things that he’s anxious about. But don’t force him to face situations he doesn’t want to face.
- Wait until your child actually gets anxious before you step in to help.
- Praise your child for doing something she feels anxious about.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’. Try to refer to him as ‘brave’ or another positive term. After all, your child is trying to overcome his difficulties.
- Try to be a good role model for managing your own stress and dealing with your own anxiety.
Strong parent-teenager relationships are good for young people’s mental health. A sense of belonging to family and friends can help protect teenagers from mental health problems like anxiety disorders. Your support can have a direct and positive impact on your child’s mental health.
Teenagers recovering from anxiety problems or anxiety disorders
Your child’s recovery from an anxiety disorder will probably have some ups and downs. Many young people who experience an episode of anxiety will have another episode, or go through some symptoms again in the future.
No-one is to blame for a setback. Go back to your health professional to help your child find new ways to manage anxious feelings and thoughts.
You play an important role in helping your child to develop confidence in her ability to overcome anxieties. You can also be on the lookout for warning signs that might indicate your child is relapsing.
Types of anxiety problems and anxiety disorders in teenagers
There are several different types of anxiety problems that health professionals classify as disorders:
- Social phobia or social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of social situations or of being judged or embarrassed in public.
- Generalised anxiety disorder is excessive worry about many everyday situations.
- Specific phobias are intense fears of situations or objects – for example, dogs or heights.
- Panic disorder is repeated, unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of fear or panic in a situation where most people wouldn’t be afraid.
- Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where it might be hard to escape or get help if things go wrong.
- Separation anxiety disorder is an excessive fear of being separated from home or a loved one.
Young people might be diagnosed with more than one type of anxiety disorder. They might also experience anxiety along with other physical or mental health problems like depression.
Risk factors for anxiety problems and anxiety disorders in teenagers
Risk factors are things that might make a young person more vulnerable or sensitive to experiencing anxiety. They might include:
- genetic factors – that is, a family history of mental health problems
- personality factors, like being very sensitive
- environmental factors, like stress or a very stressful event in your child’s life
- other factors, like ongoing physical illness.
Studies have also found that having an anxiety disorder in early or middle childhood can increase your child’s risk of developing a depressive disorder in later adolescence.
Not every child with these risk factors goes on to develop an anxiety disorder.
Many of the risk factors for teenage anxiety disorders will be outside your control. But there are many everyday things you can do to foster your child’s mental health and reduce your child’s risk.