What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal reaction to a challenging, unfamiliar or stressful situation.
Anxiety is the thought that you can’t cope with the situation or that something bad might happen. It’s the emotions of worry and nervousness that go along with that thought. And it’s physical feelings like ‘butterflies in the stomach’, tension, shakiness, nausea and sweatiness.
Anxiety in teenagers
Anxiety is very common in the pre-teen and teenage years.
This is because adolescence is a time of emotional, physical and social change, which is happening at the same time as teenage brains are changing. Teenagers are seeking new experiences and more independence too. But teenagers might also worry about these changes, opportunities and challenges.
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 – for example, that the world is going to end.
Also, as their independence increases, teenagers might worry about responsibilities, money and employment.
Feeling anxious is part of the normal range of emotions, just like feeling angry or embarrassed. For most teenagers, anxiety doesn’t last. 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, which you can help teenagers develop.
One of the most important ways to help your child develop this skill is by talking with them about their worries. By talking openly about anxiety, you send the message that your child can come to you when they need to. And even if your child doesn’t always want to talk, they’ll know you’re there to support them.
Here are other key ways to help your child learn to manage everyday anxiety.
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 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. Remind your child that many teenagers feel anxious and that feeling anxious is normal.
- 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. Let your child explain their feelings in their own words and don’t rush to reassure them or solve problems for them. This lets your child know that you understand how they’re feeling. It can also 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 influence on your child’s mental health.
Getting help for teenage anxiety
If anxiety has started to interfere with your child’s everyday activities, your child might have an anxiety problem or disorder. These problems can be treated, and the earlier they’re treated the less they’ll affect your child’s development.
Your child will need professional support.
Options for professional support include:
- school counsellors
- psychologists and counsellors
- a GP
- 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.
You can also find helpful information on our teens mental health links and resources page.
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. Your child could also go to Kids Helpline – Teens, Beyond Blue – Young people or eheadspace.