What is anxiety?
Anxiety can include body signals like ‘butterflies’, a sinking feeling, tense or uncomfortable feelings, or ‘nerves’.
Everybody feels anxious sometimes, especially when faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Anxiety is a normal reaction to challenging situations.
Anxiety in teenagers
Anxiety is very common in the teenage years.
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.
Feeling anxious is part of the normal range of emotions, just like feeling angry or embarrassed. 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 it that it stops them from doing everyday things.
Anxiety in teenagers isn’t always a bad thing. Feeling anxious can help to keep teenagers safe by getting them to think about the situation they’re in. It can also motivate them to do their best. And it can help them get ready for challenging situations like public speaking or sporting events.
Managing anxiety: helping teenagers
Managing anxiety is an important life skill.
If your teenage child is feeling anxious, the best way to help them manage it is to let them know that it’s normal to feel anxious sometimes. Tell your child the feeling will go away in time, and that it shouldn’t stop them from doing what they need to do, like giving a presentation in class.
Here are some other ways you can help your child manage everyday anxiety.
Helping your teenager face anxiety
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it. It’s important for your child to feel that you take them seriously and that you believe they can overcome their fears. Your child also needs to know that you’ll be there to support them.
- Gently encourage your child to do the things they're anxious about. But don’t push your child to face situations they don’t want to face.
- Help your child set small goals for things that they feel a little anxious about. Encourage your child 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 their 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 they’ll be able to manage their feelings 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
- 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.
- Talk with your child about their other emotions – for example, ‘You seem really excited about the swimming carnival’. This sends the message that all emotions, positive and negative, come and go.
- Listen actively to your child. By listening, you can help your child identify their thoughts and feelings, which is a good first step to managing them.
Giving your child love and support
- Show your child affection – for example, by hugging and telling them regularly that you love them. Your love lets your child know you’re there to help them cope when they're feeling anxious.
- 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 deal with your own 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 teenage stress.
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.
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 them 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.
Your child might not want to talk to 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. Your child could also go to Kids Helpline – Teens, Youth Beyond Blue or eheadspace.
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 them from doing things they want 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?