mom wrapping arms around anxious teen
Mental Health

Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens

As a parent, no one knows more than you the toll anxiety can take on your teen. You can just see their tension and worry when they walk into the room. And you may find yourself wishing you could just help them brush their fears away and focus on the positive things in their life. But you feel powerless to help them. The truth is anxiety can be difficult for anyone to deal with. When you add adolescence and all the uncertainties and changes that come with it to the mix, it can leave you feeling just as overwhelmed as your teen.

 Anxiety in teens can show up in a variety of different ways. For instance, you may suddenly find your teen avoiding social situations for what seems like no reason at all or maybe you find your teen is unexpectedly being overcome with worry. Perhaps one day you find your daughter has to do perfectly in school in order to measure up. Or maybe you have a son who panics in certain situations and even the smallest thing can stress him out. Regardless of the way anxiety presents itself, parenting an anxious teen can be a real challenge.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is often considered a normal part of everyday life, as everyone experiences some level of anxiety. And the reality is anxiety does have a purpose. There is a healthy level of anxiety that we all experience. For example, anxiety is what pushes us to get things done, get to appointments on time, and meet deadlines. However, when feelings become too overwhelming to cope with or make it hard for you to function, it could be a sign of something more serious.

During the adolescent years, it is normal for your teen to experience increased levels of worry or stress amidst juggling school, friendships, and other activities. In fact, teenagers are even more prone to anxiety due to hormonal changes and continued brain development. However, because teens are in the midst of such big cognitive, social, and biological changes, it can also be difficult to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy anxiety in teens. While there is a healthy level of anxiety that you can expect your teen to experience, there is a point when it is no longer healthy.

anxious girl sits alone

Mental health professionals define the boundary between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety in teens as whether or not the anxiety is impairing daily functioning. While it is normal for kids to worry about school or friends or their future, this type of stress can become concerning when the thoughts are intrusive and cause excessive anxiety. This often interferes with everyday life and relationships with family and friends. In this article, we will be taking a closer look at the symptoms you can be looking for if you suspect your teen might be struggling with anxiety.

Physical Signs of Anxiety

Naturally anxious teenagers are more likely to exaggerate situations, resulting in increased anxiety. This anxiety frequently results in physical distress. This can show up in the form of stomachaches, headaches, and muscle tightness. Worry can make it difficult for your teen to concentrate if it invades his or her thoughts regularly. This can also lead to sleep problems and restlessness as a result of worry, which keeps the body and mind on high alert.

Common Physical Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens:

  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches (with no medical explanation)
  • Changes in appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in sleep (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep)

Emotional Signs of Anxiety

Teens are prone to comparing themselves to others in order to determine if they are competent and worthy, as their identity construction is in constant flux. As a parent, you’ve seen firsthand how perfectionism can cause fear, tiredness, and, in the worst-case situation, paralysis when it comes to completing responsibilities. As a result, you may notice that your nervous adolescent seeks constant reassurance from you and others about their identity and whether or not they are good enough.

anxious girl sitting with peers

Your teen, like many adults, is concerned about a range of issues. A youngster who suffers from extreme worry or fear is constantly on the lookout for ways their plan or event will fail. They are frequently so focused on the problem that they fail to appreciate the elements that are working in their favor. It is important to remember that egocentrism is a developmentally appropriate cognitive constraint during the adolescent years. Simply stated, it is normal for your teen to believe that others are constantly watching their behavior and appearance, or that all eyes are on them all the time.

As we discussed earlier, this becomes a serious issue when it begins to interfere with your teen’s ability to function. Let’s imagine your teen spilled a tray in the cafeteria at school and thinks the entire school witnessed it. Your teen refusing to attend school or participate in any other school activities would be an abnormal response. Anxiety would be considered unhealthy in this case because it is interfering with their regular activities.

Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens:

  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Afraid of making even minor mistakes
  • Perfectionism
  • Excessive concern that others are upset with them
  • Excessive need for reassurance

Behavioral Signs of Anxiety

Avoidance can be one of the most damaging characteristics of anxiety. If your teen is suddenly avoiding certain situations and activities that they used to enjoy or be comfortable with, this could be a red flag. When events are avoided on a regular basis, flawed beliefs are not put to the test. Your teen may lose confidence in taking chances over time and fail to master the necessary skills for dealing with anxiety-provoking circumstances. You may see your teen withdrawing from activities that they formerly enjoyed when the avoidance gets overwhelming.

teen boy sitting alone

You may also notice that your teen appears to be more irritated than usual. This is often a sign that your teen lacks the internal resources to cope with the demands being placed on them. At times, anxiety can lead to self-medication through substance abuse and other dangerous activities in an attempt to alleviate or remove unpleasant feelings.

Behavioral Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens:

  • Withdrawal from activities they once loved
  • Increased irritability
  • Anger outbursts
  • Excessive avoidance
  • Refusal to attend school
  • Engaging in risky behaviors

How You Can Help

If your teen is willing to talk to you, your goal should be to listen to their fears and anxieties. One of the most important actions you can take as a parent is to show your teen who is struggling with anxiety that you care. By simply listening, you can send the message to your teen that they are not alone in their battle. It’s also crucial to remember that you, as a parent, play an important role as a role model.

The majority of concerned teenagers will examine their parents’ behavior to see if they are in danger. As a parent of an anxious teen, it is critical that you remain calm and provide a safe environment for your teen. This promotes an environment of openness and sends the message to your teen that there may not be anything to fear. 

parent talking to teen

Best Parenting Practices:

  • Listen to how your teen is feeling
  • Stay calm when your teen becomes anxious about an event or situation
  • Recognize and praise small accomplishments
  • Maintain a normal routine
  • Plan for transitions (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult)
  • Seek help from a primary care physician and/or mental health professional
  • Don’t forget to take care of yourself! (check out A Guide to Self-Care)

With the right tools, you can help your teen overcome their anxiety, no matter how stuck you or your teen may feel right now.

Leslie is a licensed professional counselor. She works as a therapist at a marriage intensive retreat center. She is also a foster mom and police wife. Her and her husband live in Missouri with their two teenage sons and three dogs.