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Little Ways to Help Your Anxious Teen

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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Practical Tips to Help Your Teen Manage Anxiety Symptoms

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As the parent of a teenager, you know adolescence is filled with ups and downs. You know because you experienced them yourself. Watching your teen experience them – with your new, adult/parent perspective – can elicit a range of emotion. First, let’s be honest: you may be relieved you don’t have to go through all that again. Next, after you realize you don’t need to beat yourself up for feeling relieved, you most likely experience every possible human emotion – and they’re all connected to the empathy and compassion you feel for your child.

You’re sad they’re sad, worried when they’re mad – or mad right along with them – excited when they’re excited, and maybe a little suspicious when they seem perfectly well-adjusted and even-keeled.

But don’t stress on that last one: some teens skip the rollercoaster – but they’re in the minority.

Most teens are on the rollercoaster – and again, a moment of honesty – it can be amusing.

However, for teens who are anxious – whether they have a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder or not – there’s nothing funny at all about the rollercoaster they’re on.

Let’s be clear: anxiety is not fun. It’s not fun for us, as adults – and we have decades of coping skills built up to manage our anxieties. For teens who don’t have the benefit of experience and the skills to match, anxiety can be miserable. They can get overwhelmed and scared. Anxiety can cause them to act out. It can interrupt and disrupt their ability to enjoy things they love. It can stop teens from being themselves, stop them from having fun, and impair their ability to lead a fulfilling family, school, and social life.

This article is about the little things you can do to help teens manage their anxiety and focus on what’s important: being a teenager.

What to Watch For

Anxiety it not just a problem for teens with an official anxiety disorder. With that said, the signs and symptoms of an anxious teen are the same as the signs and symptoms of a teen with a clinical mental health issue. The main differences are the frequency, duration, and severity of the symptoms. A teen with a clinical disorder shows symptoms almost every day for weeks or months, and those symptoms more intense than what someone might call being “a little nervous.” They’re severe and can be totally disruptive.

An anxious teen will experience symptoms that are disruptive and difficult, but not debilitating. Nevertheless, they can also cause significant emotional distress and discomfort, and have a negative impact on all areas of life – from school, to socializing, to simply being uncomfortable in their own skin.

The symptoms to watch for come in three categories: physical, behavioral, and emotional. We’ll list them now.

Physical Symptoms

  • Unusually high heart rate
  • Frequent stomachaches or nausea, with no clear cause
  • Frequent headaches, with no clear cause
  • Problems sleeping: too much or too little
  • Hyperventilating
  • Shaky hands
  • Excessive sweat/sweating
  • Muscular tension/rigidity

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Impulsivity
  • Constant need for reassurance
  • Excessive talking
  • Fast talking
  • Habitual repetitive behaviors
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Extreme shyness

Emotional Symptoms

  • Extreme reactions to things that don’t seem like a big deal – to you
  • Pronounced fear of failure
  • Fear of losing control
  • Constant irritability
  • Difficulty solving simple problems
  • Impaired academic performance
  • Memory problem
  • Fixed or rigid patterns of thought

If you notice any of these signs and symptoms of anxiety in your teen, the most important thing for you to do is to check yourself first: view their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with empathy and compassion. Remember that although your teen may look and act – sometimes – like a grownup, they’re not a grownup yet. This article is about the little things you can do to help them – which we’ll list below – but empathy, compassion, and understanding are big things you have to do, internally, before you do the little things.

Your anxious teen is not acting anxious or showing symptoms of anxiety in order to annoy you or make your life more difficult. They’re doing it because they’re overwhelmed by emotion and don’t have the skills to process that emotion in a productive manner.

That’s where you can help.

How to Help a Teen With Anxiety: Five Practical Steps

We mention the prerequisites above: empathy, compassion, and understanding. Those are the foundation, from your end. There are two things you need to prioritize, in terms of your behavior and action, that should suffuse the tips we offer below. Those two things are safety and stability. An anxious teen may be fearful of an unpredictable world beyond the home. To help them manage that, your job is to make the home a place they can count on to feel seen, heard, and loved – every day. All our tips revolve around – and assume – these prerequisites and essential building blocks. Those aren’t little things – those are big-picture parent things. But you don’t make a big deal out of them: you prove their presence by the little things you do, like the ones on the following list.

1. Acknowledge, validate, and talk.

Your teen needs to know you see and feel their problems with anxiety. That means talking about what you see, and listening to what they say when they talk to you about their day or what’s going on in their life. Saying things like, “Well that’s no big deal” won’t help. What helps are sentences like “I see that [insert their concern] makes you anxious. Do you want to tell me more about it?” At first, just listen, and resist the urge to try and fix things with platitudes. Step one is to let the talk, give them hugs, and tell them you’re there for them.

2. Create consistent daily routines.

We’re not talking about elaborate family rituals. Your teen probably doesn’t need a sit-down, home-cooked meal every night of the week to feel safe and secure – although who can argue that that would be great, all other things being equal? What we mean is things you do every day to make them feel safe, seen, and heard. Set aside time to talk to them about their day. Ask them about high points, low points, happy points, and sad points. Ask them about their friends. When you do this, give them all your attention. Sometimes they’ll talk themselves right through and past their anxiety, in the presence of someone they know they can trust.

3. Help them develop coping skills.

You may know some coping skills yourself, or you may need to seek outside help. Right now what we’re talking about, in a nutshell, is mindfulness skills like meditation, deep breathing, and grounding exercises. Just to simplify that word, mindfulness, think of mindfulness skills as 21st century versions of take a deep breath and count to ten or give yourself a little timeout. Mindfulness includes relaxation, walking, breathing, eating – just about anything you do can be done mindfully, and just about anything done mindfully can reduce stress, and therefore, reduce anxiety.

4. Get them professional support.

If your teen does not have an anxiety disorder that reaches a clinical threshold, don’t be afraid of getting them a therapist anyway. In this context, think of a therapist as someone – not you, not a friend, not a teacher or a coach – who’s an expert in three important things: human emotion, human behavior, and listening. They’re also skilled in teaching coping tools to manage anxiety. Hear this loud and clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a therapist. In fact, most people on earth could probably benefit from some therapy. And in this case, there’s another advantage: if your teen’s anxiety escalates and begins to cause real problems, meaning it interferes with their participation in typical daily life, then a therapist will see that and recommend more immersive an appropriate interventions.

5. Food, sleep, and exercise.

These are the cornerstones of positive mental health. They’re also the foundation of a solid approach to managing anxiety. We include these in our little ways list because you don’t have to go overboard with them. Healthy food means more whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit, and less processed food, caffeine, and sugar-based snacks. You do not have to become Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. All Organic Everything. Sleep means a consistent schedule that works – that’s all. They don’t need an elaborate sleep hygiene routine every night. And exercise means a little bit every day. Walking to and from school counts. They don’t have to become a fitness fanatic: what really matters is they get outside and get active. And yes, exercising out in nature is best, even if the exercise is walking and nature is the trees in your neighborhood. Believe it: just getting outside and moving goes a very long way.

If you take these five steps to help your anxious teen, you’ll see results. The best thing about these is they won’t seem big to your teen. They might take some work on your end, but if you implement them carefully, your teen will think of them as part of their routine – and they’ll thank you later when they realize what you were really doing was taking proactive steps to help them manage their anxiety.

Finding Help: Resources

If you’re seeking anxiety treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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