Be sure to have your teen read Is My Anxiety Normal?
Let’s start this conversation with a quick reality check: if your teen is anxious all the time, then yes, you should be actively concerned about it and try to find the underlying cause. What you should not do, however, is add fuel to the fire by compounding their anxiety with anxiety of your own. Which means our yes comes with a qualifier: yes, be actively concerned, but you have to stay even-keel.
Even if you’re freaking out inside.
All parents know their children take on their emotions. It’s obvious when they’re toddlers and school age, but it’s important to remember they keep doing it through their middle school and high school years, too. It takes different shapes and forms than when they were younger – crocodile tears and sulking may become stomping feet and slamming doors – and it may be more difficult to see the connection to your moods than when you could fix nearly everything with a big hug, a well-timed joke, a quick snack, and a solid meal. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. They still have the uncanny instinct to play out whatever subtext is going on with you, whether that subtext stress is from work, trouble with relationships, or some other adult issue you try to keep to yourself.
Though this article is about your teen, you have to start with yourself: are you freaking out because they’re freaking out? If so, stop. That has the potential to create a negative feedback loop that doesn’t help anyone – not you and not your teenager. Once you have yourself under control, the should I worry question begs two more questions:
How can I tell if their anxiety is a problem?
If it is a problem, what should I do about it?
We’ll start with the first question.
How Can You Tell?
There’s a general rule of thumb to follow about most mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression. You can use this rule for yourself and for your teenager. The rule has two parts:
- If the anxiety lasts for more than a few days – up to two consecutive weeks – then it may be an indication there’s an anxiety disorder at play, rather than typical anxiety.
- If the anxiety disrupts the daily flow of life – meaning it prevents your teenager from doing things they like to do, makes them perform poorly on tests, keeps them up at night, or disrupts their relationships with family or friends – then they may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, rather than typical anxiety.
If you answer yes to those two questions, but you’re still unsure or unconvinced your teen’s anxiety has reached a critical threshold, you can go one step further. Ask your teen to take the following two online tests, both of which were developed by mental health professionals to assess the level of anxiety in an individual:
- The Psychology Today Anxiety Test takes ten minutes and give you a basic idea of the severity of your anxiety.
- The ADAA Online Anxiety Screening for Anxiety is a more clinical-feeling test, similar to an anxiety screen you’d take if you went to a therapist.
Remember: professionals created these tests, but they’re not meant to replace an in-person assessment conducted by a fully licensed and certified mental health provider.
That’s the next step.
What Should You Do?
If your teen’s results indicate the potential presence of an anxiety disorder, then it’s time for seek a real diagnosis from a psychiatrist or a therapist. Before you do, however, keep in mind that anxiety is a common and treatable mental health disorder. In fact, it’s the most common mental health disorder in the United States. Statistics indicate that roughly 40 million adults (about 18% of the population) and about 7.5 million adolescents (about 25% of the population) struggle with an anxiety disorder. Although only about 36% of people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder get the help they need, those that do are able to manage their anxiety and lead fulfilling, successful lives – and they’re able to do that because they get professional help.
And that’s what you should do for your teen. If you think their anxiety is more than the typical nerves and fears associated with teen life, get them help. To find a qualified professional in your area, use the Online Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
One more thing: it may seem like semantic hair-splitting, but freaking out and active concern are two completely different states of mind. One contributes to the problem by adding emotion to a situation that’s likely overwrought with emotion already, while the other implies taking steps to help improve the situation through concrete actions with measurable outcomes. Don’t be the former parent, because that doesn’t help. Be the latter parent: help your teen by modeling how to handle difficult emotions and life circumstances with poise and perspective. They’ll follow your lead and internalize your behavior. With consistent work over time – and the support of their family and a trained professional – there’s a very good chance they’ll learn to manage their anxiety and prevent it from disrupting their lives.
If you think your teen might have an issue with anxiety, have them read Is My Anxiety Normal? and talk to them about it.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.