Anxiety in Teens: Why Anxiety Might Increase During Adolescence, and What Parents Can Do

During adolescence, the brain goes through a massive and magnificent redesign. This is to give children the neural firepower to make the transition from dependent little people to independent, productive, happy adults. It’s an exciting time, but it doesn’t always feel this way. Adolescence can be punctuated by entirely wonderful highs that come bundled in new discoveries and flourishing independence, as well as gut-wrenching lows. 

Part of walking the path to adulthood means that our children might sometimes feel as though they are falling through the cracks of the smaller, safer, more predictable world they have known as children, and the bigger, more demanding, noisier world of adulthood. Until they have both feet firmly on adult ground – which will be sometime in their early 20s – the ground beneath them might feel shaky, or barely there some days.

Anxiety During Adolescence. Because When They Know More, They Can Do More.

Adolescence comes with so many changes, challenges, demands, and responsibilities. As our teens become more aware of this, it’s understandable that a strong, protective brain would want to work harder to keep them safe from falling, failing, or scraping against the hard edges of their expanding world. In essence, this is what anxiety is – an attempt by the amygdala (the part of the brain involved in anxiety) to warn them that there might be danger and get them ready to fight the danger or flee the danger. Anything that comes with any risk at all of exclusion, separation, humiliation, judgement, failure all count as potential danger to a hardworking, protective amygdala – and adolescence is heavily set with all of them.

It’s understandable then, that anxiety can intensify during adolescence. Understanding the forces that might drive this can help your teen (and you) make sense of any changes that might feel frightening, or which heavy them with a sense of helplessness. 

One of the ways we can strengthen our adolescents against anxiety is to give them the information they need to make brave, strong decisions. Explaining what anxiety is, and what might contribute to it, can help them make braver, stronger, more deliberate decisions that will strengthen them against anxiety and generally. Here are some of the things that can inflame anxiety during adolescence.

  1. Sleep. Brains love it. As much as happy things and a deep breath in.

The part of the brain most sensitive to a lack of sleep is the amygdala – the seat of anxiety and big emotions. The amygdala has the very important job of scanning the environment for threat. When it senses what might be a threat, it surges the body with a mighty cocktail of fight or flight neurochemicals. If there is a threat, this is excellent, but if there is no need for fight or flight action, the neurochemical fuel builds up and anxiety happens. This is where sleep comes in. A tired brain will struggle to tell the difference between a threat and a non-threat, so it will tend to hit the panic button more than it needs to. 

Here’s the rub. During adolescence, the hormone that makes us sleepy – melatonin – is released up to two hours later than it is in children and adults. Adolescents need at least nine hours of sleep (ten is gold) but they might not even feel like winding down until 10 or 11 pm. Combine this with early morning starts for school, and you can see where this is going to end up. The more tired they are, the more reactive their amygdala will be, and the greater the potential for anxiety.

What to do.

Chat about the link between anxiety and a lack of sleep, then ask your teen for thoughts on how to get more sleep. Here are some ideas:

•  The light from screens delays the release of melatonin, so try switching to a book, music, or mindfulness at least half an hour before bed.

•  Write in a gratitude journal as part of a bedtime routine. Anxiety is stirred by negative memories, but those memories don’t actually need to be real-life experiences. They can be from the news, tv, social media, or something a friend says. The brain does what the brain does most, so the more those negative memories are accessed, the easier they will be accessed in the future. Gratitude helps make positive memories more accessible than the ones that might stir anxiety. 

•  Try mindfulness before bed. Here’s one way:

Imagine your thoughts forming into clouds in front of you. Let them float around, then let them float away when they’re ready. Do the same thing with the next thought. Do this for 5-10 minutes. Don’t worry if your mind wanders during the exercise – that’s what minds do. Gently bring it back and keep going with the exercise. 

  1. Friendships. The Changing Ground

One of the developmental goals of adolescence is to slowly establish independence from parents. They’ll still need you, but in a different way. As teens start to explore their independence, their peers will become more important than ever – but friendships during adolescence can be a roller coaster. They can be a source of enormous joy and comfort, but they can also be fertile ground for trouble – sometimes all on the same day. When friendships feel secure they will nourish, but when they feel fragile they can build anxiety around the threat of exclusion, rejection, humiliation, judgement or loss.

Friendships can be further complicated by the very real potential for adolescents to misinterpret emotional information from others. An abundance of research has established that the adolescent brain interprets emotional expressions differently to the adult brain. We humans are complicated. It isn’t always easy to read what other people might be thinking or feeling but this can be especially tough during adolescence. When adolescents read emotional expressions in others, the most active part of the brain is the amygdala – the impulsive, instinctive part of the brain that will tend to misread non-threats as threats. In contrast, when adults interpret facial expressions, they will tend to engage the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that plans, considers consequences, and calms emotional reactions for long enough to check things out. With greater importance on peers and a greater vulnerability to misinterpreting the social cues or emotions or intentions of those peers, the potential for conflict, exclusion, or friendships that break or cause breakage is heightened and can become hearty fuel for anxiety.

What to do.

•  If you can, encourage activities (sports, drama, hobbies) out of school so they can build friendships that might be more protected from schoolyard politics or a safe alternative when school friends are causing heartache.

•  Validate that adolescence can be a lonely, tough place sometimes, but that it won’t always be like this.

•  It can stir all sorts of things in you as a parent when your child is hurting, but whenever you can, let them speak without needing to ‘fix it’ or change how their feeling. Of course you might want to scoop them up and hold them close and change every messy detail about what they’re going through, but the risk with this is that they might feel a greater need to censor their words or the feelings to protect you from the harshness of it all.

  1. ‘What do I think of me? Well, that depends on what you think of me.’ The ‘looking glass self’.

During adolescence, the sense of self gets a mighty workout. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to what other people think of them, or what they think other people might be thinking about them. Being sensitive to the opinions of others is an important part of shaping who our teens become. They will explore the adults they want to be, and along the way they will learn, adjust and grow according to the way the world responds to them. This can be a healthy, nurturing process, but not always. 

From early adolescence, children will be more likely to compare themselves to others. They will also become more aware that other people might judge or compare them, and they will tend to place more importance on these thoughts and judgements. This will influence the way they see themselves, for better or worse. The part of the self-concept that is fed by our beliefs about how others see us is known as ‘the looking glass self’, and it has a heavy hand during adolescence.

The looking glass self can feed joy, contentment, pride, embarrassment, shame or guilt. Research has shown that for adolescents, their self-concepts can be strengthened when they imagine that other people are thinking positively about them. On the other hand, when teens imagine (rightly or wrongly) that others are assessing them negatively, this can feed anxiety.

What to do.

•  Wherever you can, encourage (or support) your teen in finding the things that they love doing. Anything they are strong in – a language, sport, raising a pet, drama, music, art, cooking – will help to build their self-concept in positive ways.

  1. Gut Health

The gut and the brain are profoundly connected.   

Diet, sleep, and stress all affect the gut. Separately each of these can cause enough trouble, but adolescence is often the time when our teens will find themselves with less sleep, more stress, and turning more towards faster, processed foods and away from healthier options. It’s a perfect gut storm.

What to do.

Talk to them about the gut-brain link and the importance of sleep, lowering their stress (when they can), and healthy eating –  as in more fruit, vegetables, happy gut foods (fermented foods, probiotics, foods with live and active cultures), and less processed food.   

  1. What lights them up from the inside out? Has the focus on winning stripped the love from it all?

During adolescence, the focus on academics can intensify, and extra-curricular activities which started out as fun can become more competitive and geared towards a more important goal. Anxiety is driven by future thinking, and by imagining potentially disastrous consequences of failure, loss, or missing out on an important selection. Competition is great, but so is having space to do things for the love of it all not just for the win. The risk is that the very things that may have once replenished them, can be stripped back to bare and become a source of stress or anxiety.

What to do:

Adolescence is a busy time, but it’s important that they don’t become so over-scheduled or invested in an outcome, that they stop having fun. Their hearts, minds, and spirits all need to be nourished. Encourage them to make time for the things that make them happy – as in happy from the inside out, not just because they’re winning, kicking goals or passing the exam. It’s all about balance. 

  1. Perceived pressure from school/parents/the world.

During adolescence, the focus can shift from what makes you happy now, to what are you going to do when you finish school/college/exams. Planning for the future is important, but when it happens too much it can feed anxiety. Anxiety is a sign of a brain that is spending too much time in the future. This is when the ‘what-ifs’ can start to circle, land too heavily on our teens and feed anxiety like it’s a ravenous thing. ‘What if I don’t get into university/college?’ ‘What if I don’t get a job – ever.’ ‘What if I let my parents down?’ ‘What if I let me down?’ ‘What if I fail at precisely everything?’

What to do.

Let them know they don’t need to have it all figured out. Often, it’s the redirects and the reroutes that are the reason we end up where we need to be. They just need to put one foot, and then the other. This is their time for learning. The ‘knowing’ will come in time – and it’s okay if this takes time.

  1. Social media

Social media has a spectacular capacity to pull even the strongest humans out of their own lane. Social media gives our teens a constant source of information about what their peers are doing. This can flourish self-doubt like nothing else – Should I be more like them? Less like me? Should I be doing more? Should I be doing differently? Look what they’re involved in, and they look so happy – and successful! Maybe I should be doing something like that too. 

What to do.

The key is perspective. Remind them that a photo represents one single moment in time – a moment – not a day, not a weekend, and certainly not a life. Help them to understand that there is a massive filter across social media that tends to polish lives and people until they glisten. Boundaries are just as important in the digital world as they are in the real one. Too much of anything that causes a crumpling, is too much. Remind them that staying healthy and strong is about doing more of what nourishes not only our bodies but their hearts, minds, and spirits as well. 

  1. Body Image

With the internet, our teens have the world at their fingertips every minute of every day – and it can be brutal. They are growing up in a world of selfies, filters, and photoshop. It is a world that can be relentless in its push to equate beauty with success, or beauty with happiness, or beauty with being important enough, powerful enough, wanted enough. All of this comes to them at a time when their bodies are changing. Our teens are being blasted with messages about how they should look, but for too many of them, the only message they’re taking is, ‘I’m not enough’ – not pretty enough, strong enough, important enough, powerful enough. 

What to do.

What we need to do is to redefine the concept of ‘beautiful’, and we can do this by making sure they hear a definition of ‘beautiful’ that includes them.    

And finally …

It is likely that there will be times, maybe many times, during adolescence when our teens will feel sideswiped by anxiety. Adolescence can be hard and lonely and uncertain – but we get it because we’ve been there too. However tough things get, they have it in them to be tougher. Sometimes we’ll just need to know it enough for them.

Most importantly, don’t underestimate the power of you. It won’t always be obvious, but the presence of you has a profound capacity to help them feel safe, seen and soothed. You don’t need to have the words or the magic to make things better because sometimes, all they need is you.

18 Comments

Christina

Everything you write hits me like a lightbulb going off in my head. It makes perfect sense. I’ve read this before, and will read it again for sure. Thank you so much for communicating this in a way that is easy to understand – and very empathetic.

Reply
Christina P

This is a really helpful article. About a week into online learning due to the pandemic, our 14-year old was stopped in his tracks by panic and anxiety. Our boy with such a kind and sweet disposition and healthy appetite has struggled all spring and summer with at times overwhelming angst and weight loss. We were fortunate to get him into counseling and had several sessions, and the panic has subsided, but there is still low-grade anxiety gnawing at him. In-person school starts in a week, and we are praying the activity and purpose will help him. I’m truly at a loss.

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Gail Ross

I’m so glad I have found these articles. I’m having a difficult time with my 12 year old son with anxiety and not sure the best way to help him. He has been for counselling before and I’m looking into him having some more but difficult to access. It would be great if there was a teenagers read for anxiety so they can see that it is so common and there are self help ideas for them.

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Zoee

Great article.
I would love to have this type of advice written as a piece for my daughter to read.
I can’t help but think that hearing great advice from an independent person and not a parent, along with awareness that it happens to lots of others too would be a great help!

Reply
Calvin Black

Karen,
This is a fantastic summary of the ways that anxiety can affect our kids and some of the things we can do to help them through it. Thank you for taking the time to think this through and share it.

Reply
V

Thank you for not only including the individual issues of anxiety but also what to do about them. Many articles out there leave parents/people without any guidance…you may have a gut feeling on what to do but sometime you need confirmation.
I’m a big proponent that sleep cures a lot of our ailments! Thanks so much for also including eating well and fermented foods!
I’m a new to this page, so glad I found it 🙂

Reply
Sam

Great article, thank-you! It helps make sense of anxiety for myself, my husband, my 15 year old and more importantly our 12 year old son who is having a crappy time with anxiety at the moment.

Reply
Didi

This article is very helpful for both parents and grandparents. It’s informative and the advice seems sound and realistic.

Reply
Michele

Great info! I’m going to post a reminder to myself to read this once/month in order to be proactive. My 12yo doesn’t have anxiety. My 16yo & 26yo have times of anxiety, & so do I. Thank you!

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Angela O'Malley

Thanks once again Karen for explaining, so clearly, how anxiety affects our children (and indeed us). Your grasp of what is occurring and how to respond to this is unlike any I’ve come across. I confidently refer many parents to your website and articles knowing they will gain the understanding and tools they need to best compassionately address their child’s emotional needs. What a gift you sharing your practical understanding is! Thanks so much, Angela

Reply
Marielle

I absolutely love love LOVE this article. It sums up everything that I talk about as a teen life coach for girls. It sums up all my work, everything I know and believe in as a coach and as a parent. Thank you so much. I will definitely share this on my page. I just now discovered you – you have a fan!

Reply
Sime

Dear Karen,

Have a 16 year old doughter. She suffer from unexpected anxiety attack’s.
She is brave, lovely young lady. We are handling and talking with her about that issue.
But what we found at her is huge lack of motivation. Don’t know how to motivate her.
Is lack of motivation connected with anxiety?
How to motivate her?
Thank you

Reply
Karen Young

Hi Sime. If it is connected to anxiety, it will be an issue of wanting to stay safe. When the brain goes into fight or flight (anxiety), it is not what about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives as safe (or not). If the brain perceives something that might be a threat (potential for failure, judgement, criticism etc), then it will fight to stop the person going towards that thing. If it is connected to anxiety, the key will be softening the anxiety. An important part of this is helping your daughter understand what anxiety is and how it works to hold her back from the things that would be important or meaningful. This article might be helpful for you https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-children-and-teens-the-two-questions-to-set-their-brave-in-motion/. Love and courage to your daughter.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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