Early in the school year is a common time for teenagers to display symptoms of emotional distress.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health diagnoses for adults and teens. According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 31.1 percent of American adults experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. In addition, 31.9 percent of adolescents experience an anxiety disorder from ages 13-18.
Anxiety goes beyond worrying
Dr. Michael Schulein, a psychologist at Marshfield Clinic Health System, said worrying is part of anxiety, but an anxiety disorder is more than worry. Anxiety may include emotional symptoms like fear, irritability and panic, as well as physical symptoms like nausea, stomachache, headache and restlessness. Anxiety also may create behavioral symptoms like avoidance, pacing, crying, disrupted sleep and nail biting.
Everyone feels anxious from time to time, and that’s normal. But when symptoms are persistent and interfere with your ability to function at work or home, you may have an anxiety disorder. There are genetic and environmental contributors to anxiety disorders.
Simply telling yourself to get over it, or telling someone else to just stop worrying won’t help,” Schulein said.
In addition, there are several specific anxiety disorders. Common ones include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder.
“People can learn to manage anxiety well, with symptoms resolving or improving to the point where it no longer is considered a disorder and does not interfere with their lives,” Schulein said.
Rising anxiety in teens
Data suggests teen anxiety is on the rise, and Schulein said one reason for that increase may be the impact of the connected world we live in.
“At this point in our society, we have more exposure to things to be distressed about,” Schulein said. “Social media, 24-7 news – we are bombarded with things to be stressed about.”
Schulein said anxiety could be more difficult for teenagers to manage than for adults because teens are less developed in terms of managing their emotions. He also said teens, in general, have more trouble than adults communicating how they’re feeling.
As we get older, we’re increasingly able and comfortable using language to say that we’re worried or fearful or stressed,” Schulein said. “When we’re younger, we may not want or be able to fully express how we’re feeling. So anxiety may show up in the form of a headache or stomachache or avoidant behavior, like avoiding school or avoiding friends.”
Treatment and how parents can help
He also said replacing the word “but” with “and” can go a long way toward making your child feel heard and supported.
For example, say “I know you’re feeling worried, and we’re going to help you with this.”
Don’t say, “I know you’re feeling worried, but we really need you to focus on school.”
Saying the word “but” minimizes your child’s emotions instead of helping your child feel understood and supported.
Resources for parents
There are many resources for parents of teens with anxiety. Below are some resources Schulein recommends:
- You and Your Anxious Child: Free Your Child from Fears and Worries and Create a Joyful Family Life
- Freeing Your Child from Anxiety
- Playing with Anxiety: Casey’s guide for Teen and Kids
- Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents
- Helping Your Anxious Child