What is anxiety?
Anxiety can include body signals like ‘butterflies’, a sinking feeling, tense or uncomfortable feelings, or ‘nerves’.
Everybody feels anxious sometimes, especially when faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Anxiety is a normal reaction to challenging situations.
Anxiety in teenagers
Anxiety is very common in the teenage years.
This is because teenagers have new experiences, opportunities, and challenges. They want more independence and their brain change.
For example, teenagers might worry about starting secondary school, looking a particular way, fitting in with friends, sitting exams, performing in plays at school or going to school formals. Sometimes they might even have irrational concerns about the world ending.
Also, as their independence increases, teenagers might worry about being responsible for their own actions and getting jobs.
Feeling anxious is part of the normal range of emotions, just like feeling angry or embarrassed. For most teenagers, anxiety doesn’t last and goes away on its own. But for some teenagers, it doesn’t go away or is so intense it that it stops them from doing everyday things.
Managing anxiety: helping teenagers
Managing anxiety is an important life skill.
If your teenage child is feeling anxious, the best way to help her manage it is to let her know that it's normal to feel anxious sometimes. Tell your child the feeling will go away in time, and that it shouldn’t stop her from doing what she needs to do, like giving a presentation in class.
Here are some other ways you can help your child manage everyday anxiety.
Helping your teenager face anxiety
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it. It’s important for your child to feel that you take him seriously and that you believe he can overcome his fears. He also needs to know that you’ll be there to support him.
- Gently encourage your child to do the things she’s anxious about. But don’t push her to face situations she doesn’t want to face.
- Help your child set small goals for things that he feels a little anxious about. Encourage him to meet the goals, but don’t step in too early or take control. For example, your child might be anxious about performing in front of others. As a first step, you could suggest your child practices his lines in front of the family.
- Try not to make a fuss if your child avoids a situation because of anxiety. Tell your child that you believe she’ll be able to manage her feelings in the future by taking things step by step. Try to acknowledge all the steps that your child takes, no matter how small those steps are.
Helping your child explore and understand feelings
- Tell your child about your own worries as a teenager, and remind your child that lots of other teenagers feel anxious too.
- Help your child understand that it’s normal to go through a big range of emotions and that sometimes these can be strong emotions.
- Talk with your child about his other emotions – for example, ‘You seem really excited about the swimming carnival’. This sends the message that all emotions, positive and negative, come and go.
- Listen actively to your child. By listening, you can help your child identify her thoughts and feelings, which is a good first step to managing them.
Giving your child love and support
Thinking about your family life and routine
- Show your child affection – for example, by hugging him and telling him regularly that you love him. Your love lets him know you’re there to help him cope when he’s feeling anxious.
- Avoid labeling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’.
- Try to be a good role model for your child in the way that you manage your own stress and deal with your own anxiety.
- Make time in your family routine for things that your child enjoys and finds relaxing. These could be simple things like playing or listening to music, reading books or going for walks.
- Spend time with people your child likes, trusts and feels comfortable around.
- Encourage a healthy lifestyle for your child, with plenty of physical activity, sleep, and healthy food and drink. It’s also important for your child to avoid alcohol and other drugs, as well as unnecessary teenage stress.
Anxiety problems and disorders
Most normal anxiety goes away quickly – perhaps in a day or a few hours. An anxiety problem is when anxious feelings:
- are very intense
- go on for weeks, months or even longer
- get in the way of a young person’s ability to learn, socialize and enjoy daily life.
An anxiety problem could be diagnosed by a health professional as an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is a mental health problem.
If you’re worried that your child might have an anxiety problem or disorder, ask the following questions:
- Is my child’s anxiety stopping her from doing things she wants to do? Is it interfering with friendships, schoolwork or family life?
- How does my child’s behavior compare with the behavior of other young people the same age?
- Is my child extremely distressed by feelings of anxiety?