Being a teenager is tough. There are so many changes going on in a teenager’s body and in their life that can be difficult to deal with. Throw anxiety in the mix, and it can all feel too overwhelming. Fortunately, you can help your teenager manage their anxiety.
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There are different kinds of anxiety disorders. Excessive, difficult-to-control worry characterizes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The worry can be about a range of things, such as family, relationships, school, health, or everyday situations. Some teens experience intense anxiety in social situations, which a doctor may diagnose as a social anxiety disorder.
There are more specific anxiety disorders and phobias, such as a fear of particular situations or things, like spiders, flying, or needles. Agoraphobia is the fear of going to places that are difficult to escape if something goes wrong, like shopping malls or public buses.
Many teens experience anxiety about their appearance and body image. They may also feel anxious about how peers perceive them. Teens may experience anxiety over whether they are doing well enough at school or if they’re disappointing their friends or parents. Other teens may not know what is causing their anxiety.
It’s important to understand the symptoms of anxiety so you can recognize them in your teenager. Many of the common symptoms include:
Becoming increasingly irritable
Refusing to go to school or hang out with friends
Worsening school grades
Sensitivity to criticism
Increased need for reassurance
Complaining they’re always very tired: People with anxiety may experience fatigue or have difficulty sleeping.
Increased physical illness: Anxiety can contribute to muscle tension, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.
4.4 million kids¹ aged 3-17—approximately 7%—experience anxiety in the US. Anxiety disorders in kids and teens become more common as they get older. Over 10% of teenagers aged 12-17 in the US experience anxiety.
Females are statistically more likely to experience anxiety disorders than males. Research² shows girls are twice as likely to have experienced an anxiety disorder than boys by age 6.
Another study found that 38% of teenage girls³ experience anxiety disorders compared to 26% of teenage boys. It’s important to look out for signs of anxiety in both sexes and support them.
There are many ways to support teenagers with their anxiety. If you find you cannot connect with your teen, or none of these methods are helpful, consider contacting your doctor or a mental health professional.
Often, teenagers experience anxiety as they fear not being good enough. They might feel that they aren’t doing well enough at school, or maybe they are worried they are disappointing you in another way. If you reassure them that you are proud of them for who they are rather than what they do, you can lift this weight off their shoulders.
Teenagers can be more sensitive about their appearance and body image. Even the most well-meant comments may feel like criticism. Try to refrain from commenting on or criticizing your teenager's appearance.
You can help your teenager develop a positive body image by modeling positive body image principles. Use positive language when talking about your own body or someone else’s.
Many teens don’t know why they feel anxious. Others may know but aren’t ready to talk about it. It’s fine to sit down with them and ask how they are feeling and if they want to talk through anything, but you need to respect their answer.
If your teen doesn’t know why they are anxious, they probably already feel confused and helpless. It may make them feel worse if you push them for an answer.
If they don’t want to talk about their anxiety, remind them you care and let them change the topic. This demonstrates that you respect their wishes and feelings. If you force them to tell you something they aren’t ready to share, it can create negativity between you. They may be less likely to open up to you in the future.
Research⁴ tells us diet influences mental health. Your diet influences the bacteria that live in your gut microbiome. Diversity of the gut microbiome and certain “good” bacteria indicate a healthy microbiome. Less diversity and large amounts of “bad” bacteria imply a less healthy gut microbiome.
By eating nutritious foods, you can maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut microbiome. The health of your gut influences your brain function through the gut-brain axis, playing a role in mental well-being. Eating a diet with a variety of fresh and nutritious foods nurtures a healthy gut microbiome. If your teen is struggling with anxiety, think about how you can improve the nutritional value and diversity in their diet. Choose home-cooked meals rather than eating out, and eat a variety of whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and lean proteins.
Before you make any large dietary changes, chat with your doctor about what’s best for you and your teen.
There is emerging evidence that the following nutrients help to reduce anxiety:
Omega-3 fish oils
Processed vegetable oils⁵
How much caffeine does your teen consume daily? Caffeine is an anxiogenic substance⁷: It causes anxiety. If your teenager regularly consumes caffeine, encourage them to decrease the amount to see if this reduces their anxiety.
Foods and drinks containing caffeine include:
No teenager wants you to speak to them like they’re a child. Discuss things with your teen like you would with another adult. Try to avoid getting irritated with them when their anxiety causes them to do something that bothers you, like wanting to skip school or isolating themselves in their room.
They did not choose to feel like this, and they probably want these feelings to go away even more than you do. If you get mad at them, they’ll only feel worse. Focus on understanding their point of view and responding to them calmly and empathetically.
Try not to say things like “it will go away” or “just don’t worry about it.” You may mean well, but it will come across as though you are brushing off how they feel.
These thoughts and feelings are real for anxious teens; they cannot just switch them off. They need their emotions validated. Saying things like this can feel dismissive or as if you’re not interested in understanding their experience.
If your teen comes to you to talk about what is causing their anxiety, don’t immediately start problem-solving for them or start telling them what they should do. Listen to their problem and validate it.
You could say things like, “That would upset me too,” or “I can see why this upsets you.” It’s important to remember that being a teenager is a completely different experience than being an adult. What might seem like an obvious solution to you may not be to them. Many teenagers just need to feel heard and understood.
Once your teen has finished telling you how they feel, you could ask them what they need. You could try saying something like, “Would you like me to help you with that?” or “Do you want to talk about that some more?” If they say no, respect their decision: They will appreciate this much more than any unsolicited advice.
It’s already a win that your teenager shared their feelings with you. By asking them whether they want your help and respecting when they say no, you’re proving that you listen to them. It also lets them know that you’re there for them and will help when they need it.
Studies⁸ have shown that anxiety has links to insomnia. Due to normal biological demands, teenagers already need more sleep than adults. Many teens who struggle with anxiety will often complain about always being tired. Anxiety can affect your sleep, causing anxious teens to stay awake into the late hours.
If you encourage a consistent bedtime and wake time, their body’s natural rhythm will adapt. They will feel tired around the same time every night, hopefully making it easier for your teen to fall asleep.
Other strategies for good sleep hygiene include:
Keeping the room dark: Curtains should block out all light
Avoiding devices with screens like phones, computers, and TVs before bed. Don’t keep these devices in bedrooms
Keeping the room feeling fresh by airing the room out during the day
Avoiding caffeine before bed
Exercise and yoga
Yoga⁹ and meditation¹⁰ are great choices. Both of these practices involve pranayama: Controlled breath regulation. Pranayama¹¹ regulates the nervous system, reducing symptoms of anxiety.
Aerobic exercises¹² like running, cycling, and swimming can reduce anxiety when done regularly. You could encourage your teen to try this two or three times a week to improve their anxiety.
Exercise causes your body to release endorphins¹³, which are the feel-good hormones. Endorphins reduce the body’s stress response and promote a sense of well-being and happiness.
However, be sensitive when encouraging your teen to exercise. As many teens are anxious about their physical appearance, they may take encouragement to exercise as criticism. Make sure you approach this topic kindly and reassure them why you think exercise may help them.
Diaphragmatic breathing¹⁴ is one of the simplest and fastest ways to relax when experiencing anxiety. When you feel anxious, it’s common to start taking quick, shallow breaths. Shallow breaths activate the sympathetic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response, which can fuel your sense of panic.
By taking deep breaths that fill your chest and diaphragm, you can reduce panic and anxiety. Simply breathing into your diaphragm—you should feel your stomach expand as you breathe in—for a few minutes is sufficient to reduce anxiety.
Many people find that certain smells can ease anxiety. Using essential oils, such as lavender¹⁵, can aid relaxation, sleepiness, and reduce stress.
Drinking herbal teas¹⁶, taking a warm bath¹⁷, and listening to music¹⁸ promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Gentle movement like stretching or yoga⁹ can aid calmness as well.
Massages¹⁹ reduce muscle tension and anxiety. If you can, book your teen in for a massage at a spa or with a massage therapist to help relieve their anxiety. This would also make an excellent gift for your teen, even if you can’t discuss their anxiety with them yet. It could also be a great bonding experience if you go together.
When suggesting these relaxation techniques to your teen, don’t push them if they don’t take to any of them right away. You will be planting these ideas in their mind, and they will be able to try them when they are ready.
Research²⁰ shows that spending time outdoors can reduce levels of anxiety. Spending time outside can reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS): The system that triggers the fight or flight response. Lessening the activity of the SNS can reduce anxiety and promote a relaxed state.
Introduce the idea of talking to a doctor about their anxiety. You can chat with them about the help a doctor can provide—such as medications and cognitive behavior therapy—and explore whether this is something your teen is willing to try.
You may want to talk to your family doctor to discuss your teen’s anxiety. Your doctor may have some suggestions about how to help your teen and will advise if they believe your teen needs a medical review.
However, if your teen isn’t willing to see a doctor, don’t push them. Treating anxiety with a professional requires the patient to engage in the treatment, and this won’t happen if they are not ready.
Alternatively, there are several online resources for helping teens with their mental health: Websites like Go Ask Alice! allow teens to ask health professionals questions.
Online or digital cognitive behavior therapy is an effective anxiety treatment. Your family doctor may be able to suggest a suitable resource.
If you are worried about your child’s safety, here are some emergency services you can contact:
Dealing with teenage anxiety is tough for teenagers and their parents. You can do many things to help them reduce their anxiety levels, including ensuring they eat a healthy diet, maintain a good sleep routine, and encouraging relaxing activities.
Regardless of what is causing your teen’s anxiety, showing them that you care, that you are proud of them, listening to them, and respecting their wishes will help them feel less alone. Chat with your family doctor if you are concerned about your teen’s anxiety.
Data and statistics on children's mental health | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Any anxiety disorder | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health
Nutrition as metabolic treatment for anxiety (2021 - Frontiers in Psychiatry)
Endorphins and exercise (1984)
Clinical aromatherapy (2020)