High Anxiety Teens

With my profession, I come into contact with teens on a daily basis who are writhing in anxiety.  Some over their current grade in a class, others over a relationship with a friend, and more trying  to determine what they want to do as a career.  Our teens are hit with an enormous amount of information every day and it seems like they never take an opportunity to “turn it off”.  I believe it increases the intensity of their emotions and often leaves them feeling very anxious.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, close to 30 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys have had symptoms significant enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder.  Anxiety is now among one of the most common mental health disorders that presents itself during the teen years and it seems to affect anyone regardless of your social class, income level, or your ability to perform well academically.  In addition, teens with high levels of anxiety have been shown to struggle more academically, avoid typical social events for teens, and are at a higher risk of alcohol and drug use.

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress for anyone and I find myself still becoming uneasy when I have to speak in front of a room full of parents.  So for our teens to be unsure about a test in math they are preparing for, giving a speech in a class, an upcoming game with their biggest competitor, or going on a date, this all seems reasonable.  So while some anxiety is beneficial for us, I think it’s important to recognize when it becomes an issue.  For teens and their parents, I feel using these questions to determine the significance of your teens anxiety would be helpful:

  • Is your teen having difficulty sleeping?
  • Is your teen complaining more often about headaches, stomachaches, or feeling tired for no apparent physical explanation?
  • Does it seem like your teen constantly worries?
  • Is your teen avoiding a situation or people because of feeling anxious?
  • Does it seem difficult for your teen to focus?
  • Does the worry seem excessive, consuming, or irrational?

In regards to anxiety and teens today, I have seen many things contribute to this difficult emotion.  Teens today worry about being accepted and liked by peers, they find themselves overcommitted to things, and our teens are overexposed to the frightening state of our world.  Not only are teens coping with school pressure and graduation requirements, they are constantly bombarded by information on social media.  They spend time wondering how many “likes” they will get on a selfie post.  They watch an argument with a friend that occurred during the school day get commented about all night long on a social media platform.  With the constant “on” of their lives, it requires heightened attention which I believe leads to higher levels of anxiety.   Further, teens are experiencing such higher stakes for college admissions.  They are stressing over ways to get a higher class rank or a better ACT/SAT score to ensure that they will be accepted to the University they always dreamed of attending.  Not to mention, graduation requirements are becoming more difficult as well and our teens are the most tested students there has ever been.  If these students don’t score high enough, they do not graduate regardless if they have passed every class required for graduation.  This leads many to feel anxious.

While we cannot erase the situations that create more anxiety for our teens, there are several suggestions that may be helpful in helping our teens cope with feeling so worried.  I believe it is important for our teens to recognize their emotions and understand why they are feeling the way they do.  Teens being able to recognize the situations that create high anxiety would be very beneficial to them as well.  Furthermore, I often talk to students about some of the most basic ways to cope.  It is important for teens to create a good sleep schedule and to eat well.  I also talk with students about exercise because it allows for teens to destress and it also increase the “feel good” chemical in our brains.  In addition, I spend a significant amount of  time working with students to create great time management skills.  Other coping methods that I share with teens include the use of yoga, mindfulness training, and meditation.  I am a big believer that our teens need to learn to unwind and unplug and it will be a valuable skill that will help them in so many ways throughout their lives.

Many times I’m asked from parents of teens who are struggling about what can the parents do.  Here are a few suggestions I would recommend:  Listen carefully and respectfully to your teen with no judgements about how they are feeling.  Reassure your teen that anxiety is a normal part of adolescence.  It would be very helpful you can talk with your teen and help them recognize the situations/experiences that are causing the anxiety and praise your teen when he/she gets through a situation they were so unsure about.  Please work very hard to stay calm when your teen is worried about something.  While I know that is a difficult task because it is so hard to watch our kids struggle, if we get emotional when our teen is confiding in us about their worry, it only makes the situation more difficult for them.  In addition, please refrain from sharing with your teen that “these years are the best years of your life” sort of statements.  It is not helpful and it is not true.  I often have said to colleagues who work with high school students that no one could pay me enough money to be a teen again, especially during this generation.  It is hard and it is a whole different adolescent experience than what we experienced.  So be compassionate and a soft place for your teen to fall.  It is so desperately needed for them.

Lastly, I wanted to share several resources that I like to use with teens:

  • The Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal With Anxiety and Worry – Lisa Schab
  • My Anxious Mind: A Teens Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic – Michael Tompkins, Katherine Martinez, Michael Sloan
  • The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens: CBT Skills to Overcome Fear, Worry, and Panic – Jennifer Shannon
  • The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies For Managing Your Anxiety So You can Get on With Your Life – Alice Boyles
  • Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Workbook for Overcoming Anxiety at Home, at School, and Everywhere Else – Christopher Willard

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