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.

19 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.

Reply
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

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Angel E

Thank you it’s helping me realise what anxiety can be caused by and how it works so thank you for that it makes me see I’m not going crazy aha

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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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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