Is your teenager always worried? Are they struggling to do “the basics” despite everything you do or say to help? Do you feel like your anxious child is slipping away and becoming someone you don’t recognize? In this article we’ll discuss anxiety in teens and what parents can do to help.
Parenting an anxious teenager has many challenges that can overwhelm any parent or guardian. You are not alone in this struggle. Many parents are finding themselves in this stressful situation. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. The number of anxious teenagers is also on the rise. It is a sad fact, but you should know that you are not alone. Many others are parenting anxious teens. They, too, are struggling to help their child overcome a disorder that is taking over their lives.
First, let’s learn about what you and your family are up against. We will then go over the symptoms of an anxiety disorder (some may surprise you) and learn about co-occurring conditions like depression. Most importantly, we will go over ways to help your child, so they can start living their best life.
How Does Anxiety Affect Teens?
- Recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns
- Difficulty concentrating
- Worries about everyday life events
- Fear of dying
- Fear of going crazy
- Excessive concern about being harmed
- Worrying about loved ones
- Avoidance of independent activities
- Fear of unfamiliar people
- Low Self-Esteem
- Experiencing excessive fears and worries
An anxiety disorder can affect every aspect of a teen’s life, including:
- School Attendance
- Commitments to sports or clubs
- Relationships with family
- Physical health
- Co-occurring conditions
Anxiety presents in many different ways and can affect each person differently. Because anxiety can cause gradual changes in your teen’s life it can be difficult for parents to understand exactly what is going on. For instance, it is hard for parents to know whether their anxious teen is not hanging out with their friends because of social anxiety or just because some friends can drift apart. Similarly, parents can struggle to understand the reasons why they can’t sleep. Are they drinking too much caffeine, or are they up all night rehearsing conversations in their head because they are scared to say the wrong thing.
It can also be challenging for a young person to understand how anyone can help them with their anxiety. Teens might not understand how to communicate their feelings. They might not even think that they are normal. After all, many teens are struggling with anxiety.
How Common is Anxiety in Teens?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder for teens and children. Many different studies have taken a closer look at anxiety in teens. Depending on which study you read, they estimate 15-30 percent of young people will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before 18. Unfortunately, many more go undiagnosed but experience the adverse effects nonetheless.
As parents, one of the best ways to help your child is to bring awareness to the issue of anxiety in young people. In addition, the earlier your child is diagnosed, the sooner they will benefit from the many available treatments. But how do you know if your child has an anxiety disorder? First, let’s look at the many different symptoms from the many various anxiety disorders.
Feeling anxious sometimes is normal, like when you are nervous about passing a test. That nervousness or stress can even help people stay motivated when studying. It is built into our biology and allows us to react to threats or danger (think the fight, flight, or freeze response). Good anxiety is proportional, though. It does not last long and is an appropriate response for the situation.
When someone develops an anxiety disorder, the anxious feeling is no longer acting as a tool to help get through stressful situations. Instead, the anxiety leads to excessive worry or fear. This can negatively impact everyday activities and even how someone interacts with the world for an extended time.
Teenage Anxiety Statistics
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.
- Anxiety is more common among women and caregivers.
- 80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not getting treatment, and anxiety disorders are highly treatable!
- Studies have found a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication for 12 weeks yields a positive response in 80% of children with anxiety disorders.
- About 50 percent of adults and up to 30 percent of children with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder.
What Causes Anxiety in Teens?
Teenagers are under much pressure today. They are trying to balance more than previous generations. Excess amounts of screen time have been normalized. Depending on what research study you read, screens are now occupying 4-6 hours each day of a teen’s life. Social media use alone has been linked to increased anxiety and depression in teens.
Additionally, environmental factors can be responsible for increased anxiety in teens. Unfortunately, many teenagers have not developed sound coping skills for the stressors that can greatly impact their mental health.
Many of these factors can cascade onto each other. One can lead to another, and before your teenager knows it, they are stuck in their anxiety. The cycle can continue as teens try to escape the anxious feelings, and co-occurring conditions can arise. Feeling anxiety about being anxious is a typical feedback loop.
- Death of a loved one
- Family history of anxiety
- Social isolation
- Health issues
- Financial hardship
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased caffeine intake
Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens
- Fast heartbeat
- Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
- Frequent headaches and migraines
- Upset stomach & Indigestion
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Chest pain
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- Not feeling well with no apparent medical cause
- Changes in social behavior
- Withdrawal from social activity
- Avoiding social interactions
- Avoiding extracurricular activities
- Spending increased time alone
- Avoidance of new situations
- Unstable social relations
- Mood swings
- Unexplained outbursts
- Changes in eating habits
- Repeated reassurance-seeking
- Substance use
- Extreme self-consciousness
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Frequent nightmares
- Not feeling rested after sleeping
- Poor school performance
- Overwhelmed by the workload
- Frequently missed assignments
- Missing school
- Drop in grades or school refusal
- Avoidance and fear of school-related events
- Difficulties with family functioning
- Avoidance and distress of a feared object
- Tachycardia (fast heartbeat)
- Throat tightness
- Accelerated heart rate
- Issues with breathing
- Feeling like they’re dying
- Feeling like they’re “going crazy.”
- Numbness or tingling in arms and legs
- Difficulties breathing
- Intense fears
- Shortness of breath
- Sense of unreality
- Fear of dying, or losing their mind
- Excessive yawning
- Cold Extremities
- Globus Hystericus -(lump in the throat feeling)
The Different Types of Anxiety Disorders in Teens and How to Recognize Them
It is easy to think of teenagers as “immature adults,” but the truth is that they are not. Your teenager will most likely not show the same symptoms as an adult who has severe anxiety. Symptoms also depend on the type of anxiety disorder a teen has. There isn’t just one kind. To further understand the different types of anxiety disorders, let’s examine each one.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Characterized by people suffering from excessive worry about everyday events. Their fears are often exaggerated or for no apparent reason. They often can’t stop worrying about relationships, school, work, money, future events, or health. Their worry is out of proportion to the situation. Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorders can show up as early as six years old.
- Anticipating the worst
- Recurring fears and worries about parts of everyday life
- Trouble concentrating
- Extreme self-consciousness or sensitivity to criticism
- Withdrawal from social activity
- Avoidance of complicated or new situations
- Chronic complaints about stomach aches or headaches
- Drop-in grades or school refusal
- Repeated reassurance-seeking
- Sleep problems
- Substance use
A panic disorder is a mental health problem that causes a sudden spike in anxiety or extreme fear when there isn’t an imminent danger. Those of you who have experienced a panic attack knows that it is a terrifying experience, especially for a teenager. They might not understand what is going on. They could think they are dying or having a heart attack.
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Chest or stomach pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Weakness or dizziness
- Feeling hot or a cold chill
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
Phobias are commonly understood. They are irrational or extreme fear of something or a particular situation. Why people develop phobias can vary. They can sometimes be a result of a trauma, or other times even genetic factors. One of the most common phobias is a fear of public speaking. The most common phobias affecting teens involve public humiliation, snakes, needles, flying, and failing grades.
- Trembling and shaking
- Flushed face
- Disturbing thoughts
How can you Recognize Social Anxiety in Teenagers?
Social Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition where irrational anxiety is caused by social interactions or events. Adverse experiences like bullying can cause teen anxiety. Teenagers who have social anxiety disorder can excessively worry or have a social phobia. They worry about things like being embarrassed or judged. This often leads people with social anxiety to try to avoid many social situations. They may show physical signs like excessive sweating, fast heart rate, and nausea when experiencing anxious feelings.
Other Forms of Anxiety Disorders That Can Be Affecting Your Child’s Mental Health
This is where a person fears leaving home or separating from a caregiver. Separation anxiety is more common in children than adults. Not surprisingly, there is a correlation between young children with severe separation anxiety and those who develop agoraphobia during adolescence. Agoraphobia is an overwhelming fear when they feel like they can not get out of a situation.
People With Agoraphobia can be Fearful of:
- Leaving their home
- Open or enclosed spaces
- Crowds of people
- Public transportation
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (known as obsessions) and paired with repetitive behaviors (compulsions). When people who have OCD perform these rituals lead to a temporary feeling of relief. If they are not able to complete the ritual, it leads to increased anxiety. Although OCD was thought of as rare, after further study, it was found to affect 1-3% of people, making it the fourth most common mental illness. While 1-3% might seem like a small number, it means that somewhere between 3 and 10 million people in the United States alone suffer from OCD.
The first signs of OCD often start during childhood or adolescence. Issues at school involving academic performance can be one of the first signs of OCD for teenagers. It can sometimes present as an obsession with getting the correct answers on a test or assignment. They might reread or rewrite things several times. Additionally, someone struggling with OCD might barrage other students and teachers with questions about assignments or tests. Finally, they may create rituals attempting to control the outcome of their grades. At first, it may have seemed like a good thing that they are trying so hard at school. They might even get positive feedback until the behavior starts to move into other areas of their life.
PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder triggered by a traumatic event. A traumatic event is any event that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm to an individual, resulting in the individual feeling threatened or frightened. When it comes to trauma, it is essential to keep in mind that it is dependent on that person’s perception. Trauma is unique for everyone. Your teenager might not even understand that what they experienced was traumatic. That is until PTSD symptoms arise. They may not know that there is help out there for what they are feeling. Also, keep in mind that teens might not know how to communicate about trauma. They also might be embarrassed to talk about the event because of the shame that so often accompanies trauma.
Sometimes it is hard for parents to imagine that their child could have been in a traumatic event that would trigger PTSD. The unpleasant truth is that it is more common than one might think. It is estimated that 5% of adolescents aged 13-18 experience PTSD. Additionally, The National Survey of Children’s Exposure reported that 18.7% of teenage girls had experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault in their lifetime.
20 Common Signs of PTSD in Teens
Feeling tense or jumpy
Bad dreams or trouble sleeping
Socially withdrawn from friends and family
Overreacts about small things
Emotional numbness or feeling detached
Poor academic performance
Sudden change in behavior
Loss of interest in hobbies
Detached from daily routines and activities
Difficulties with concentration and focusing
Changes in eating habits
Isolates him or herself
Constant fear or worrying
Nausea or frequent headache
Common Co-Occurring Conditions
Being anxious is an uncomfortable feeling. In response, co-occurring conditions are often present. Let’s take a look at the most common co-occurring conditions for teens who have anxiety.
What is the Relationship Between Anxiety and Depression in Teens?
Why are anxiety and depression so often linked? Well, simply they have a lot in common, and one can lead to the other. The link is so strong that nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and depression are both categorized as mood disorders. They are also both known as internalizing disorders. These two disorders have common signs and symptoms.
Teens can get stuck in an anxiety/depression cycle. When teens are depressed, they worry, and that worry leads to anxiety. For example, anxiety can prevent them from going to a movie with friends. Then they can feel depressed because they are lonely.
Like anxiety, depression is a normal emotion. Depression becomes an illness when it affects daily living activities like school, relationships, health, etc. Teens who are depressed often have a lack of energy. Their eating patterns can change, and they can experience frequent aches and pains without an identifiable cause.
The good news is that teen depression and anxiety have similar treatments, including medications that help with both simultaneously, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
How Can Anxiety in Teens Lead to Drug Use?
It is common knowledge that many teens experiment with drugs and alcohol. There are many reasons why teens are likely to experiment. Teenagers might try to fit in or could be bored. However, there is a big difference between experimentation and substance abuse disorder. Teenagers who have an anxiety disorder are more likely to seek drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Drugs and alcohol can relieve the discomfort.
About 20% of Americans with an anxiety disorder also have an alcohol or other substance use disorder. Many teens turn to cope with substances because they don’t know what else to do. Anxiety can be a powerful force that comes with complex feelings and emotions. It is difficult for anyone to express these feelings to friends, family, or even a therapist.
Are Teens Who Have Anxiety More Likely to Have ADHD?
Anxiety during the teenage year has also been linked to problems with focusing and learning that can cause problems with school. About 50 percent of adults and up to 30 percent of children with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. It can be challenging to treat both because ADHD medication (normally stimulants) can cause increased anxiety. The good news is that some treatments can positively affect both anxiety and ADHD, like cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and medications.
As a parent, it is hard to know how to help your teenager. You can take many directions, but how do you know what the right one is, or if your child would be willing to give it a try. So, in the next section, let’s review some ways to help teens who have anxiety.
How do You Help a Teenager With Anxiety?
As a parent, you want the very best for your child. However, it can be hard to help a teenager through struggles with anxiety. Teens might not understand how their anxiety is affecting themselves or others. Anxiety is known as one of many internalizing disorders and is fundamentally an internal battle. Your teenager might not remember what it is like to not live with anxiety, as symptoms can often appear at a young age. The first step in the right direction is identifying the problem or awareness that there is an issue.
Once identified, teens can start working on lifestyle changes to begin calming some of their anxious feelings. There are many treatment options available for teens. There are also many medication options. Overall, anxiety is treatable with individualized plans that fit your child’s needs.
What Lifestyle Changes Help Alleviate Anxiety in Teens?
Some of the best medicine is right in front of us! Overall, balance and wellness can help teens get back on track. Remember that lifestyle changes can make a big difference. On the other hand, they are not a replacement for treatment. The lifestyle changes below are great things to try alongside professional recommendations. Take a look at all the things you can encourage or role model your teen to help with their anxiety.
It is no big surprise that what people eat affects their mood. Quick carbs like doughnuts and chips are delicious and convenient. Unfortunately, they spike blood sugar and then crash. Eating a healthy diet can help regulate and increase overall mood.
Exercise releases endorphins and helps to reduce stress.
Reduce Caffeine Intake
Not many people can go without a warm cup of coffee in the morning, and there are some great health benefits linked to drinking it! However, when people do not drink caffeinated beverages in moderation, it can make anxiety worse. Caffeine disrupts sleep patterns and increases the consumption of empty calories. Teens or anyone who drinks caffeine in moderation will feel less anxious and more rested.
Mindfulness is a great way to combat anxiety. Many studies have been conducted and confirmed that mindfulness exercises like yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises reduce anxiety and stress.
People need sleep, and we need a lot of it. If your teenager is struggling to sleep, they can do several behavioral things to help them fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Stick to a routine
- Limit caffeine and only drink caffeine in the morning.
- Stop using electronics at least 30 mins before going to bed.
- Get enough exercise
- Try deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
- Stop eating 1-3 hours before going to bed
How is Drug Therapy Used to Treat Anxiety in Teens?
There is no such thing as a happy pill, but medications for teens can help them with their anxiety. For best results, anxiety medication is used in conjunction with other therapeutic modalities.
Antidepressant medications are most commonly used in treating anxiety in teens. Before your child takes an antidepressant or any psychiatric medication, it is essential to have an in-depth discussion with your child’s doctor to fully understand what to expect.
Questions to Ask Your Child's Healthcare Provider
There are many reasons why a doctor would prescribe a particular medication. They factor in the child’s age, symptoms, and potential side effects.
Antidepressants often have side effects, especially at first. Ask your doctor about them and if there are any that you will need to be particularly aware of.
Everyone’s treatment goals are unique to each individual, and it is essential to have realistic expectations for treatment. Getting the proper medication can take time with some trial and error. It can be a frustrating process, but it is well worth the effort when your child can get the help they need to overcome anxiety and start living the life they deserve.
Treatment Options For Teens With Anxiety
There are many treatment options available for teens who are struggling with anxiety. Best results for teenagers usually involve a combination of treatments. Most effective treatment plans are individualized. Anxiety might be common in teens but how teens overcome anxiety is an individual matter.
Three Main Focuses of Anxiety Treatment
- Managing crises that can accompany anxiety
- Managing symptoms
- Minimizing the effects on daily living
CBT is carried out by a licensed therapist and is designed to challenge negative thought patterns. In addition, a therapist using CBT can identify co-occurring conditions that may be exacerbating their anxiety symptoms.
A psychological treatment known as exposure therapy helps people face their fears. People often avoid things that frighten them in the short term, but avoidance can make fear worse in the long term. In situations such as these, a psychologist might recommend exposure therapy, which means creating a safe environment in which the person being treated can be exposed to the thing they fear and try to escape from. Gradual exposure to what you fear, in a safe environment, can decrease fear and avoidance.
Mental health care that is usually administered at a hospital or health care facility. Patients are typically admitted by a doctor. Programs of this kind usually last for a short period of time.
Outpatient therapy generally consists of visiting a therapist periodically while living at home. However, the structure of outpatient therapy varies widely, depending on the number of visits and the length of the program. Outpatient therapy usually lasts one to two hours a week (longer if needed), depending on the severity of symptoms.
Mental health facilities where patients will live and undergo treatment of different kinds. These residential programs are, by definition, inpatient programs. However, these programs are not confined to a hospital setting; rather, they are conducted in designated facilities and entail traditional talk therapy, group therapy, and living in a structured environment.
Prolonged progress can be seen with involvement from the whole family. This happens during family therapy, where each family member learns how their behavior impacts others. Out of this closeness, family members grow understanding and acceptance for one another.
Wilderness therapy is a type of mental health treatment that employs therapy as well as challenging situations to help teenagers with various mental health issues, such as anxiety and other issues that go hand in hand with it. This means clients can put aside distractions and focus on themselves. They are also granted skills in family therapy, which will make it easier for them to communicate. These programs are tailored to provide accurate assessments of a person’s mental state. In general, a more accurate assessment is carried out, which leads to more personalized treatment.
Choosing the right care for your child is a big decision. Combining treatments like those above may help your child and your family. Even so, one program in particular comes to mind when it comes to anxiety treatment for teenagers. Let’s talk about the advantages of Aspiro Adventure, the family program of services offered.
How Wilderness Adventure Therapy Can Help
Kyra was not your average 16-year-old girl; she had been struggling through life for the past couple of years. Her family had been as supportive as they could be. Kyra had a wonderful family, including her mom, dad, and little sister Addison, who is 14. They lived in Palo Alto, CA, which is a cute little suburb of San Jose. However, the past two years have been difficult for Kyra. Her mom described her anxiety symptoms as more severe, not the normal teenage anxiety. It had gotten to the point that Kyra often laid awake worrying about intruders or a school shooting at her middle school. When she did finally go to sleep, Kyra had nightmares. Her intense fear even extended to dwelling on tragic world events.
Kyra didn’t have many friends. She appeared to lack maturity and often looked anxious in social settings. While she had made a few friends, and they seemed to enjoy one another, but they did not stick around long term. Kyra often said that she felt like she had to “wear a mask” for people to like her. She began to assume that her friends would leave when the mask came off. Kyra had so many letdowns that she became depressed. Kyra had even been struggling to get out of bed some days and did not believe she had joy in her life. When she started to get ready for school, her heart would pound against her chest, like she was sprinting, her stomach would ache, and sometimes she even had panic attacks. This past school year, it has gotten so bad that she could not go to school most days.
At this point, Kyra’s parents knew they needed to get her help and ended up hiring a psychotherapist named Dr. Kelly. Dr. Kelly worked with Kyra for a few months, and they went to multiple sessions every week. Unfortunately, this was until Dr. Kelly recommended that Kyra needed a higher level of care. Her sessions with Kyra were not going to be enough.
Kyra’s mom agreed, and she knew deep down that Kyra needed more help than she was getting. She loved her little girl more than anything in the world and knew it was time to look into better options. Her mom felt that Kyra was an incredible young woman with so much potential. She just needed help to set her on the right path.
After searching the internet for options and calling many programs, Kyra’s parents thought it would be best to send her to Aspiro. Aspiro is a wilderness adventure therapy company specializing in helping teenagers who are struggling in the ways Kyra was.
At Aspiro, Kyra was going to be able to get the help that she needed. While there, she got the opportunity to experience challenging yet fun adventure activities like rock climbing and mountain biking.
From day one, their therapist Danielle Gagnon seemed to understand Kyra. Danielle worked directly with Kyra while in the program and spoke with her parents over the phone. Kyra’s parents learned how to best support her while Kyra was learning ways to calm her anxiety. Kyra was so successful that she made friends with some of the other girls in her group. She was able to work through her catastrophizing thoughts and became more rational. Aspiro’s adventure activities helped with this process by challenging Kyra’s “worst-case scenario thoughts.” After a few months of this extensive, full-immersion treatment, Kyra is feeling better. She doesn’t feel like she has to put on a mask for others. Instead, she feels like she can be herself.
Her anxiety has not gone away entirely, but she has been able to cope with those feelings when they come up and not let them drag her down. Krya’s family learned how they could best support their daughter. Krya is now home and still going to therapy twice a week. Her journey in overcoming anxiety is not over yet, but she is on the right track.
Where To Go For Support
Aspiro takes wilderness therapy a step further and adds adventure therapy. Students at Aspiro get the opportunity to fight off anxious feelings while rock climbing, mountain biking, skiing, canyoneering, and backpacking. This treatment option is particularly well-tailored for teens struggling with anxiety. Adventure activities help them learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Asprio combines professional mental health counseling with natural challenges, novel experiences, and powerful adventures to fast-track the healing process.
Additionally, Aspiro is designed specifically for teens. They are around other teens allowing them to connect with, and learn from, other teens struggling with similar challenges.
Exposing teens to novel environments through adventure therapy activities is an effective way to challenge teens. In this setting, teens can learn and practice new coping strategies. Further, overcoming seemingly impossible challenges, like summiting a large mountain, has been shown to improve resilience, grit, and self-efficacy.
Overall, Aspiro has a long track record of positive outcomes for teens. Outcomes you can expect; stronger family relationships, improved self-efficacy, increased resilience, and a more positive outlook on life. Aspiro provides accurate mental health assessments, so you can be assured that your child gets the help they need. Wilderness adventure therapy’s unique environment provides customized treatment plans implemented by professionals. In addition, these therapeutic methods create an atmosphere of growth and learning that will help get your teenager back on track.
Aspiro is a licensed program that has also gone through voluntary credentialing processes through the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH) and the Association of Experiential Education (AEE). These organizations provide credentialing for outdoor behavioral healthcare providers and experiential education programs, respectively. Aspiro is committed to providing safe and effective treatment to teenagers. Aspiro Adventure uses evidence-based practices that are proven to be effective treatments for teens with anxiety.
In all, Aspiro Adventure is an effective treatment option for teenagers who are struggling due to anxiety. So if you are worried about your teen’s anxiety, give Aspiro Adventures a call today to learn more about how Aspiro can help you and your family.