6 ways you may help your teen manage anxiety
Being a teenager isn’t easy. It’s a huge growth period — physically and emotionally. And teens are under a tremendous amount of pressure, from school and sports to social media and sexual identity.
Many people may have experienced at least some anxiety at one time or another. At times, anxiety may be considered a healthy emotion. However, when your thoughts become intrusive and “what-if” worries start to affect your daily activities like job, school or relationships, you may have an anxiety disorder. About 32% of all teens have some sort of anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.1 The good news? There are treatments that work, says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine in New York City and the host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast.
These treatments start with support from parents or other adults in their life, says Saltz. “In addition to helping kids in their day-to-day life, you can help your teens access treatment if they’re overwhelmed by anxiety,” she explains.
Why are teenagers anxious?
Teenagers have been getting more anxious for a while, notes Rob Gent, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at Embark Behavioral Health, headquartered in Chandler, Arizona. Here are some reasons for that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).2
Parents’ high expectations
Many teens are spread thin between school, sports and extracurricular activities, says Gent. A 2022 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that rising parental expectations are leading to perfectionism in their college-age kids.3 According to one of the lead researchers: “Young people internalize parental expectations and depend on them for their self-esteem. And when they fail to meet them, as they invariably will, they’ll be critical of themselves for not matching up. To compensate, they strive to be perfect.”
An uncertain world
Your teenager is likely aware of potential threats in the world, from school shootings to deadly viruses, even if they’re not talking about it.2 When an alarming event is in the news, consider discussing it with them. One way to start is to ask whether or not their friends have been talking about the event. This may open the door to ask about their thoughts and feelings, as well as how their friends are processing it. And it’s an opportunity to ask questions about what they’ve heard on social media and in the news.
The influence of social media
Many of today’s teens are glued to their phones 24/7, says Gent, which can make them feel constantly “on.” It also can take a toll on self-esteem. A 2020 study found that teens who got fewer “likes” on social media reported feeling more depressed and anxious.4
Consider talking to your teen regularly about social media. Ask how they use it — are they mostly sharing updates with friends, are they following celebrities/influencers or are they looking for advice? How do they feel when they’re using it — are they inspired or are they envious?
How you may help lower your teenager’s anxiety levels
Consider these ways that may help your teen feel calmer, more confident and in control.
Scale down their schedule
If your teens seem overwhelmed, help them find out where they can reduce the pressure. Brainstorm together to figure out what activities to cut from a busy schedule, says Dr. Saltz. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sport, a club or social engagement — they don’t have to do it all. “Be clear that you’re not asking them to be ‘the best.’ You’re asking them to do their best and simply try,” she adds.
Help them gain a sense of control
This includes making sure they get enough sleep and physical activity. And helping them get organized. Sometimes anxiety can come from a lack of organization. When kids feel out of control and can’t focus, even tiny things can throw them for a loop. “Teach them how to use a planner so that they can write down what needs to be done and when,” suggests Dr. Saltz. It can help them feel more in charge of their lives.
Stay on top of their screen time
“The most loving thing you can do for your child is to give them boundaries,” says Gent. He advises taking breaks from cellphones. It’s especially important to power down in the evening because it can affect sleep. The AAP recommends that you turn off phones completely an hour before bedtime and recharge the devices overnight outside kids’ bedrooms. This way, they won’t be woken up by message alerts and tempted to get back on their phone when they should be resting.
Be available to your teen
Take time to talk about your teenager’s feelings and answer questions, says Dr. Saltz. Ask teens what they’re worried about. Let them open up about their concerns and help them figure out ways to manage them. Listen carefully and respectfully, without judgment and without minimizing their very real anxieties.
Know the signs of anxiety
Sometimes your teen will come to you and let you know that they’re anxious. But oftentimes, they won’t. “They may not even recognize that’s what they’re experiencing,” says Gent. Look for the following clues2:
- They seem overly worried about parts of their daily routine, such as eating or getting dressed
- They seem more irritable
- They avoid activities they once liked, such as going to class or hanging out with friends
- Their grades drop
- They have trouble sleeping, paying attention or studying
- They’re drinking or doing drugs
- They frequently complain that they’re tired, or they have a headache or stomachache
If you see any of these signs, consider making an appointment with your child’s health care provider.
Get your teenager help if they need it
Many teens may be anxious, but 80% of kids with anxiety never get help, according to a 2018 report by the Child Mind Institute.5 If all that anxiety has disrupted your child’s ability to get to school or have a social life, then it may be time for treatment, stresses Dr. Saltz.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be helpful in many cases. CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns, relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and positive self-talk. Additionally, medication, like a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), can be another tool in some circumstances. An SSRI is a type of antidepressant that also treats anxiety. A combination of these treatments helps about 80% of children with anxiety disorders.2
Remember: An anxiety disorder can be treated. Your child’s provider may be able to help you find a therapist. Or you can also go to the American Psychological Association’s psychologist locator tool. With treatment, along with your help and support, your child may learn to cope with their anxiety.