If you live in America, it’s becoming more and more likely that the answer is “yes.” Since 1985, American teenagers have jumped from 18% of college freshman feeling “overwhelmed” to 41%. Nearly one-third of teens and adults have an anxiety disorder. But do we even see it when it’s happening?
Three Myths About Anxiety
- “It’s mostly happening for teens from difficult/disadvantaged backgrounds.” – Nope. While many teens with anxiety disorders do come from backgrounds of abuse or poverty, our affluent and well-off teenagers are struggling just as much. The pressures of perfectionism and the belief that they’re not measuring up is impacting middle- and upper-class teens across the country.
- “It’s all the ‘helicopter’ parents’ fault.” – No. Parenting has an influence, of course, but the influence of peers, culture, movies, TV, video games, magazines, blogs, Instagram and other social media, and even the news are sending a recurring message of fear, inadequacy, and isolation. Teenagers today are internalizing their anxiety.
- “It’s normal and healthy to feel anxiety; it improves performance and makes us try harder.” – Sure… to a certain extent. Butterflies in your stomach before a big performance is likely to help you perform at your best. But teens with severe anxiety often cannot function on a day-to-day basis. Their thoughts torture them. They experience physical symptoms like migraines and nausea. They isolate themselves and may experience depression or suicidal thoughts. Anxiety should be taken seriously.
Recognizing Warning Signs
Anxiety can look different for different people, but there are some typical warning signs that you can look out for. How does you child handle pressure? What about failure? Take note of how frequently your teen is restless, worrying, irritable, and on edge. You may notice changes in eating habits and problems with sleeping well. Is their anger, isolation, or irritability escalating? Are there concerns about muscle tension, high blood pressure, or unexplained physical problems like headaches or stomachaches? You’ll also want to monitor social experiences, as many teens struggle with social anxiety. Painful embarrassment at small things, avoiding social situations, or withdrawal from activities or people that they used to enjoy may all be warning signs.
What To Do
Hopefully, your first step is simple: if you see a warning sign that concerns you, talk to your child about this. But how do we do this well, and what do we do if it’s not enough?
- Express your concerns gently and ask them to tell you about their internal experience.
- Try not to show fear, shock, or disappointment. They need to feel heard and valued.
- We know that we have our value in what Jesus has done for us, and we are loved and valued by God – but don’t pressure your child on spiritual truths. Pray with them, and do devotionals with them to help them ground their identity more fully in Christ, without feeling guilty for not being “spiritual enough.”
- Set firm boundaries around their specific triggers, like going on Facebook or approaching tests at school. Give them support before and after these situations.
- Help them to identify their internal thoughts, and to identify alternative thoughts – likely, more truthful, realistic, and positive thoughts – to remind themselves of during difficult moments.
And if there is any sign of suicidal thoughts, self-injury, or if you feel like their warning signs are escalating – seek professional help. Remove possibly dangerous items from the home. Monitor their daily activities more closely. Talk to your child’s pastor, doctor, and a professional counselor or psychologist. And of course, continue to encourage them and pray with them and for them.
Some current news articles may help you continue to understand the current crisis of anxiety in today’s teenagers:
This New York Times Magazine expose
Consider how your own anxiety or expectations may be a concern as well
This “On Point” episode explores the increased anxiety among today’s teens