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.

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
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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