Normal anxiety and anxiety disorders in teenagers
Most normal feelings of anxiety last for only a short time – a few hours or a day.
An anxiety disorder is when anxious feelings:
- are consistently very intense and severe
- go on for weeks, months or even longer
- interfere with young people’s learning, socialising and everyday activities.
Anxiety disorders can be treated very effectively. And the earlier they’re treated, the less likely they are to affect young people’s mental health and development in the longer term.
Everybody feels anxious sometimes. In fact, some anxiety can even be a good thing. You can read more about normal anxiety in pre-teens and teenagers.
Signs of 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 thinking, emotional, behavioural and physical symptoms. Not all the symptoms have to be present for there to be an anxiety disorder.
Your child might:
- have trouble concentrating
- say their mind is racing and they can’t think straight
- often seem forgetful or distracted
- put things off – for example, have trouble starting or completing schoolwork.
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- be withdrawn or very shy, or become isolated by avoiding social activities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 they must do a particular action, like touch things in a particular order
- have obsessive thoughts or images that they can’t get out of their 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.
A teenage anxiety disorder 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
An anxiety disorder is unlikely to go away on its own, but most anxiety disorders improve with treatment. Seeking professional help early for your child is the best thing you can do. Also, getting treatment for your child shows your child that you care and sends the message that your child isn’t alone.
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
- psychologists – you don’t need a referral, but your GP might be able to recommend someone
- school counsellors or counsellors
- telephone parenting hotlines or Lifeline – 131 114
- your local community health centre or local mental health services.
Psychological treatment usually focuses on strategies to help teenagers cope with anxiety. This means that teenagers learn to manage anxiety rather than avoid it. Teenagers don’t usually need medication, but health professionals might prescribe it under certain circumstances.
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 for teens – 1800 551 800. Your child could also go to Kids Helpline – Teens.
Supporting teenagers with anxiety disorders at home
There are many ways you can support your child with an anxiety disorder and look after your child’s mental health at home.
Here are some ideas:
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it. Let your child know you’re there to support and care for them.
- Gently encourage your child to do the things that they’re anxious about. But don’t force them to face situations they don’t want to face.
- Wait until your child actually gets anxious before you step in to help.
- Praise your child for doing something they feel anxious about.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’. Try to refer to your child as ‘brave’ or another positive term. After all, your child is trying to overcome their difficulties.
- Try to be a good role model by managing your own stress and dealing with your own anxiety.
If your child is being treated for anxiety by a professional, you should discuss these strategies with the professional first. You can also ask the professional for suggestions about how to help your child use the strategies they’ve learned in therapy sessions.
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 influence on your child’s mental health.
Teenagers 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 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 their ability to overcome anxieties. You can also be on the lookout for warning signs that might indicate your child is relapsing.
Types of 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.