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Anxiety in Children and Teens: How to Recognize it and Help

Being a Kid is Not Always Fun and Games

Growing up, children experience a lot of stress. From being afraid of the dark and monsters under the bed to going through puberty and facing academic pressure, each stage of life brings new challenges for children and adolescents. Anxiety is prevalent in both children and teens, and parents must know how to recognize symptoms to help their children.

Anxiety in young children

Almost all children experience anxiety in some form, which is normal. Low levels of anxiety and worry can be helpful, alerting us of danger and keeping us from harm. However, high levels of anxiety can be harmful, and when anxiety starts to affect a child’s everyday life and puts them in extreme distress, it's time to seek help.

Approximately 5.8 million children in the US are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety can look different from child to child, depending on what is making them anxious and the kind of anxiety they are experiencing.

Overall, common signs of concerning anxiety include:

  • Avoiding activities, situations, or people that make them anxious

  • Focusing on what can go wrong

  • Fears and anxiety that interfere with daily activities

  • Still experiences worry and distress after being reassured by a parent or adult

  • Cannot sleep or wants to sleep with parents

  • Frequent stomachaches and/or headaches that are not due to an underlying health condition

How to help a child with anxiety

If you notice your child is experiencing anxiety, it’s important to ensure they get help. All mental health conditions are easier to treat when they are caught early. One of the most important things to note is children should not be removed from stressful situations or encouraged to avoid them. Taking away anxiety all together can teach children unhealthy coping mechanisms and make them more isolated from activities or friends.

Instead, children should be encouraged to face their anxiety head-on. Acknowledging anxiety, talking through the problem, and finding a solution can help them meet their fears. Going through the situation that makes them anxious and seeing that nothing bad happens will help them learn to cope with anxiety.

It’s also important to be transparent with your children. You can’t promise with confidence that nothing will go wrong, and you don’t want to confirm their anxieties. Instead, reassure them that you will be there for them and it will be OK. Validate their concerns by listening to their fears. e empathetic and let them know that it is OK to have these feelings. Teaching children not to hide their emotions is also important because if they do not feel comfortable expressing their feelings, you may never know that they are experiencing anxiety in the first place.

Anxiety in teens

As kids get older, their anxiety can change and look different. Gone are the fears of the dark and monsters, and instead, they are replaced with more realistic fears, mainly centered around themselves. Teenagers face a lot of pressure surrounding school and grades, with the academic pressure of college admissions looming ahead. Many teens have anxiety about doing well in school and not letting their parents down. Sports are another stressor for many teens, especially if they feel pressured to do well and aim for a sports scholarship for their future.

Many teenagers also experience anxiety surrounding their looks and body image. Going through puberty can be tricky, especially since all teenagers go through puberty at their own pace. Not all teenagers will look the same, and some may feel inferior because of it. Social media can add to this pressure as they can see and compare themselves to their peers 24/7.

Since teenagers’ anxiety stems from different sources, signs and symptoms may vary.

Common signs of anxiety in teenagers include:

  • Worrying about routine parts of daily life

  • Irritability and trouble concentrating

  • Being self-consciousness or sensitive to criticism

  • Withdrawal or removal from activities

  • Avoiding new or difficult situations

  • Complaining of stomachaches and/or headaches

  • Drop in school performance or avoiding going to school

  • Reassurance-seeking

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Substance use

How to help a teen with anxiety

Anxiety can be difficult to spot in teenagers, as they are very good at hiding their emotions. However, if anxiety is left untreated, it can lead to other issues. Anxious teenagers may turn to substance use, like using marijuana or alcohol, to cope with short-term anxiety. This can lead to addiction or substance use disorders if they learn to depend on these substances.

Anxiety in teens can also lead to depression. Many anxious teenagers tend to isolate themselves from society as they remove themself from stressful situations. This isolation and anxiety can affect their well-being and cause them to become depressed.

The best treatment for anxiety in teenagers is similar to that in children, teaching them healthy ways to recognize and cope with stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is recommended for teenagers struggling with anxiety, as it teaches them how to tolerate and deal with their anxiety and eventually work past it. In some cases, medication may be recommended in conjunction with therapy. An evaluation by a mental health professional will help determine the appropriate course of treatment.

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