About anxiety disorders in pre-teens and teenagers
Anxiety is a natural part of life. An anxiety disorder is when anxiety is severe and lasts a long time.
Anxiety disorders usually involve intense fear or worry about specific situations or general worry that’s very difficult to control.
Anxiety disorders can make it difficult for pre-teens and teenagers to do everyday things like go to school, learn and socialise. They can also cause difficulties in their relationships with family and friends.
Pre-teens and teenagers with anxiety disorders usually respond very well to professional treatment. And the earlier anxiety disorders are treated, the more quickly pre-teens and teenagers can get back to their everyday activities. Prompt treatment also means that anxiety disorders are less likely to affect mental health and development in the long term.
If your child is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and is getting professional help, your support can also help them recover.
Types of anxiety disorders in pre-teens and teenagers
There are several types of anxiety disorders:
- Social anxiety disorder or social phobia is an intense fear of social situations or of being judged or embarrassed in public. It can include intense worry about not being included or ‘fear of missing out’.
- 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 and 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 or places where it might be hard to escape or get help if things go wrong. It can include being afraid to leave home.
- Separation anxiety disorder is an excessive fear of being separated from home or a loved one.
- Selective mutism is the inability to speak in certain places, with certain people or during certain social activities.
Pre-teens and teenagers might be diagnosed with more than one anxiety disorder. They might also have other physical or mental health problems like depression or stress as well as anxiety.
Treatment options for anxiety disorders in pre-teens and teenagers
If you think your child has an anxiety disorder, it’s best to seek professional help as soon as possible. An anxiety disorder is unlikely to go away on its own, but most anxiety disorders improve with psychological treatment.
Psychological treatment usually focuses on strategies to help your child cope with anxiety.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is the most effective psychological treatment for anxiety. CBT can:
- help your child understand and challenge anxious beliefs
- increase your child’s confidence to face fears and cope with uncertainty
- build up your child’s brave behaviour so they can face fears rather than avoiding them.
CBT will work best if your child learns strategies with a mental health professional and then practises the strategies at home and in real-life situations.
Depending on your child’s diagnosis, other mental health treatments and therapies might also help. A mental health assessment will help you and your child choose the right option or combination of options.
Pre-teens and teenagers usually don’t need medicine for anxiety, but health professionals might prescribe it under certain circumstances.
Professionals who can help pre-teens and teenagers with anxiety disorders
If you think your child has an anxiety disorder or your child has been diagnosed with a disorder, there are many professionals who can help:
- Your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family if you don’t know where to go.
- A psychologist can help your child develop and practise strategies for managing their anxiety. You don’t need a referral to see a psychologist, but your GP might be able to recommend someone.
- A school counsellor or a counsellor with training in child and adolescent mental health can help your child solve problems and understand and manage anxious feelings.
Your child might be able to get Medicare rebates for up to 10 mental health sessions from psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists each calendar year. To get these rebates, your child will need a Mental Health Treatment Plan from a GP or a referral from a psychiatrist or paediatrician.
Other sources of support for you and your child include:
- parenting helplines or Lifeline – call 131 114
- your local community health centre or local mental health services.
Getting treatment for your child shows them that you care and sends the message that your child isn’t alone. And if you show you’re confident that professional support will help your child, this can also help your child manage an anxiety disorder.
Supporting pre-teens and teenagers with anxiety disorders at home
Your support and a strong relationship with you can have a direct and positive influence on your child’s mental health and their recovery from an anxiety disorder.
There are also many things you can do as part of everyday family life to support your child with an anxiety disorder:
- Tell your child that you love them and that they can talk to you whenever they need to.
- Ask your child how they’d like you to support them. This shows respect for your child’s independence and might also give them a sense of control.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings with warmth and compassion. This can help your child develop self-compassion, which in turn can help your child ‘bounce back’ during or after difficult times.
- Tell your child that you have confidence that they can face their fears and cope with difficult situations.
- Practise problem-solving with your child. This can help your child develop the skills to work through problems and find solutions by themselves.
- Ask your child and their health professional about the strategies they’re working on as part of their treatment. You can help your child practise these strategies at home.
You’re an important role model for your child. If you experience adult stress or adult anxiety, you can set a great example for your child by seeking help too.
Recovering from anxiety disorders
Your child’s recovery from an anxiety disorder will probably have some ups and downs. Many young people who experience an anxiety disorder will experience some symptoms again in the future.
No-one is to blame for a setback. It helps to see setbacks as opportunities to practise anxiety management strategies again. Go back to your health professional if your child’s anxiety continues.
Your child might not want to talk with you about how they’re feeling. Your child might even say there’s nothing wrong. If so, you could suggest a confidential telephone counselling service for young people, like Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800.