What to Do If Your Teen Has Anxiety

How to Tell Anxiety Disorder from Normal ‘Nerves’
teenager's feet turning nervously

By Deb Lonzer, MD

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About 25 percent of 13- to 18-year-old children have generalized anxiety — that’s one in four kids. An even more alarming statistic: Generalized anxiety can start as early as preschool. And the problem seems to be on the rise nationally.

We’re not talking about nervous-before-a-test anxiety, but anxiety that affects all aspects of life — a true diagnosis.

How can you tell if your child has generalized anxiety?

If you’re concerned that your child may have generalized anxiety, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my child more shy or anxious than other kids his or her age?
  2. Is my child more worried than other kids his or her age?

If the answer is yes to either question, your child may have this complex condition with no concrete cause.

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Mounting expectations for children, parenting styles and societal factors could all play a role in the rising incidence of generalized anxiety. There is also some data on exposure to violence in the media. It certainly can affect children’s short-term fears as well as attention span problems and aggressive behaviors (but that’s a whole other blog). However, nothing I’ve seen suggests that it affects true anxiety.

More clues that your kid may have generalized anxiety:

  • He or she can’t be reassured or comforted easily.
  • He or she often strives for perfection and seeks constant approval from others.
  • He or she may have difficulty sleeping and is often clingy or jumpy in seemingly innocuous situations.

If you’re seeing any of the above alerts, let your pediatrician know. It could be that your child would benefit from seeing a specialist.

If you suspect generalized anxiety, what should you do?

Talk therapy can be very helpful in the long term, and some kids may need medication — at least to get through the really rough stages. That’s definitely something that should be recommended by your pediatrician with input from a psychologist or psychiatrist.

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In the meantime, here are steps that you can take to ease your child’s anxiety:

  1. Be a comfort. Reassure him or her regularly.
  2. Be prepared. Help your child work up to big transitions like the start and end of the school year.
  3. Be flexible. Modify your child’s — and your own—expectations during stressful situations.
  4. Be real. Let kids be honest about their fears and concerns with you, and remain calm, supportive and honest in return.

I’ve been asked whether children are likely to simply outgrow this condition or if they’re destined to becoming anxious adults. There isn’t a pat answer, however. It varies greatly and depends on the age at diagnosis and the make-up of the child. We hope that kids can grow out of anxiety, but that’s not always the case.

On the bright side, with the right treatment, a child will likely learn over time how to keep a cool head and cope with unnecessary anxiety.

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