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.

17 Comments

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.

Reply
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!

Reply
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.

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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