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Understanding Anxiety in Teens to Know How to Help Them

Woman stressed at a computer

There is no question that stress and anxiety run rampant in our society. Specifically here in the U.S., we have the highest rates of anxiety on the planet. And on top of the normal, everyday stressors of life in America, we now have the added stress of a global pandemic. It’s no wonder that stress and anxiety don’t only affect the adult population– they are hitting teens hard as well.


According to the APA Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s. Maybe that seems hard to believe at first read, but when you think about the number of negative stimuli and input we have nowadays with the internet at our fingertips, as compared to the 1950s, is it really such a far stretch? Additionally, one in four teenagers has an anxiety disorder. And anxiety is often comorbid with depression– nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression also have an anxiety disorder. When these disorders are left untreated, they can have all kinds of negative social and academic consequences. (ADAA)

What is Stressing our Teens?

So what is stressing our teens out? Common triggers include genetic factors, hormonal changes, romantic stress and heart breaks, academic stress, family financial struggles, peer pressure, social and cultural pressure, parental divorce, and traumatic events such as cyber bullying, teen dating violence, and sexual assault. Not to mention the way Covid has shaken the whole institution of in-person schooling, and the transition almost every high-school-aged kid has had to go through with distance learning and the social isolation that can come with that.

This is something we have to take very seriously, as the effects of anxiety can be detrimental. We need to learn how to help our teens cope with the increasing stressors of modern life. But before we can help, we need to understand the different types of anxiety that stress can lead to:

Types of Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

This one is what it sounds like: anxiety over pretty much everything in one’s life. It’s not tied to any specific stressor, but rather leaks into every area of high school life– academic performance, relationships, sports, family dynamics, etc. People with GAD (and really any form of anxiety) tend to be very hard on themselves and expect perfection, which of course is unattainable and only exacerbates their anxiety when they inevitably fall short. GAD can also lead us to desperately seek the approval of others, in the same way we seek our own approval.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks (at least two for a clinical diagnosis), followed by at least one month of fear of having another attack or “going crazy.” Panic attacks are intense bursts of anxiety that can accompany physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, faster breathing, lightheadedness, and trembling. They are very scary but fortunately don’t usually last too long.

Social Anxiety Disorder, or Social Phobia

Once again, the name gives it away: social anxiety disorder is the fear of social situations. This can range from being afraid to start up a conversation with a peer to avoiding social group situations altogether. This can be especially heightened during high school, which is a critical time for social development and typically a peak of insecurity.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by repeated, unwanted, and obsessive thoughts that lead to repetitive, compulsive actions, such as checking that the door is locked multiple times, or that the stove is turned off. It can be diagnosed in children as young as two or three years old but is most commonly diagnosed at ten years old. Boys typically develop it sooner in life than girls.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can occur in individuals who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. It can be characterized by flashbacks, avoiding situations similar to the event, and intense feelings of anger or sadness related to the event. In teenagers, PTSD can develop due to an unstable or violent home situation, or a traumatic event from childhood, such as a parent dying.

All types of anxiety can be scary, and if left untreated, can eventually lead to risky behaviors or even suicidal ideations. But they are all treatable with some basic routine adjustments and the help of a professional. You can also help your teens. Don’t let that list scare you– if you notice any of the symptoms of one of the above conditions in your teen, here are some things you can do to help, in no particular order:

Encourage Good Sleep Habits

One of the key factors to good mental hygiene is sleep! A good night’s sleep can make all the difference in how we are feeling. While you can’t control how often your teen wakes up in the night or if they are able to sleep at all (often it can be hard to sleep with anxiety), you can enforce a reasonable bedtime and a cutoff to screen time at night, as screens can trick our bodies into staying awake.

Encourage Daily Exercise

Another key factor to mental health is consistent exercise. Your teen may be getting in a bit at P.E. during school, but even just an extra walk a day can really lift their mood. A morning walk before school starts may be too early, but see if you can do a family walk before or after dinner each evening. This can be great bonding time as well, which will also be good for your teen. Or if they are into sports, encourage them to try out for a sports team!

Cook Healthy Food

This may be the part you have the most control over– what your teen is eating. Either you or your spouse are probably the ones cooking all the meals and stocking the pantry. Make sure to buy healthy snacks and cook healthy meals for your teen (and for yourself!), but also teach them why healthy eating is so important so that they can make good choices for themselves when you are not around. Maybe even have them cook a meal or two occasionally. Eating healthfully is critical to mental wellness– but so is the occasional treat!

Find a Professional

Woman smiling in therapy

Finally, perhaps the most important way you can help your teen if they are struggling severely with anxiety is to find them a therapist. Many counselors are covered by insurance, but even if you have to pay out of pocket, it is well worth it. Some out-of-network therapists have sliding scales to meet your financial needs. It’s important to get them set up with professional help before the anxiety and/or depression gets debilitating. They will thank you for it in the future, even if they are resistant at first.

Image 1Hopefully after learning more about the different types of anxiety and what you can do to help, you feel more equipped to help your teen fight this mental illness. Anxiety can be so challenging to overcome, but it is not something your teen has to go through alone or live with forever. Just knowing that you love and support them, and encouraging them to talk through their feelings with you can make a world of difference– even if you don’t know the “right” thing to say. Sometimes all we need is someone to listen to us and validate our struggle.

And if you are looking for more support, sign up for a Group Counseling Session for Teens and Parents, or reach out to one of the counselors at Floracer Family Counseling! They provide their services to help you and your family flourish.



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