This post: How To Help If Your Teen Has Anxiety: One Parent’s Lessons Learned
By Katy M. Clark
I remember the anticipation I felt driving to my daughter’s elementary school several years ago. I couldn’t wait to see her perform in the class play. She had spent countless hours preparing and rehearsing for this big day and she was brimming with excitement.
When I arrived at the school, however, my enthusiasm and anticipation quickly turned to concern.
Her teacher rushed me backstage where I found my daughter physically shaking. Her heart was racing and she was having difficulty breathing. At the time, I assumed she was suffering from stage fright so I gently tried to calm and reassure her.
Unbeknownst to me and her teacher, my daughter was having a full-blown panic attack.
Six months later she experienced the same symptoms. This time before a school holiday party. Again, when I arrived at the school, the teacher rushed me straight to my daughter. As I tried to help calm her down, she explained what triggered this latest episode. “Mom… I couldn’t stop thinking that something bad was going to happen to you on the way to the party,” she said.
Clearly, my daughter’s physical symptoms and worries about my safety were disproportionate to the reality of my typical, average drive to her school. And, that’s when I knew I needed to dive deeper and seek the assistance of a medical professional.
How To Help If Your Teen Has Anxiety: One Parent’s Lessons Learned
Having some anxiety is a normal part of life. After all, what teen doesn’t feel anxious before taking a big test or making a presentation in front of their class, for example? And most teens have, at some point, experienced anxiety’s “fight or flight” response when coming face-to-face with a dangerous or threatening situation – in fact, we all have.
Some people, though, feel intense worry or fear repeatedly.
According to the Mayo Clinic, anxiety disorders “involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and can last a long time.”
After evaluation by my daughter’s pediatrician, she was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She is now 15 years old and in the years since her diagnosis, I’ve learned a great deal about anxiety disorders, specifically as it relates to teenagers.
In hopes of helping other parents whose tweens or teens may be experiencing what my daughter went through and providing facts for parents who want to learn more about this mental health issue, I’m sharing several key facts about anxiety, including the different types of anxiety, symptoms, and treatment options.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Generalized Anxiety is constantly worrying about a lot of different things, oftentimes out of proportion to the actual circumstance.
Panic Disorders are characterized by sudden, intense fear that leaves someone feeling physically overwhelmed and out of control, even when there isn’t danger.
Social Anxiety is the extreme fear of being judged or embarrassed in social situations.
Specific Phobias are intense fears or aversions to situations or things, like flying, spiders or the fear of heights.
Separation Anxiety is the fear that something bad will happen to a parent or loved one when the person is separated from them.
Agoraphobia is worrying about being trapped in places where it seems hard to escape or get help in an emergency, such as on an airplane or while standing in a crowd.
Selective Mutism is characterized by children who can speak at home or with family, but not in public, such as at school.
- Substance-Induced Anxiety Disorder can be triggered when certain medications are taken or when misusing or withdrawing from drugs.
When my daughter had her panic attacks she experienced difficulty breathing, trembling, and a racing heart. And on a day-to-day basis, she has shared that she simply “cannot stop her mind from worrying.”
Feeling panic, fear, and uneasiness
Having a sense of panic, doom, or danger
Increased heart rate
Hyperventilating or breathing rapidly and more quickly than normal
Feeling weak or tired
Trouble concentrating and ruminating or thinking about a problem over and over again
Trembling or shaking
Nausea or gastrointestinal problems
Inability to control worry
An urge to avoid feared objects or places that trigger anxiety
In addition, WebMD lists shortness of breath, dry mouth, tense muscles and dizziness as symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders are manageable conditions generally treated with psychotherapy, medication or a combination. Some teens may respond to therapy alone, while others may need a combination of therapy and medication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the gold-standard therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). A therapist teaches the person with anxiety various skills to help them feel less anxious and fearful.
Through CBT, my daughter learned to utilize tools like a worry box. When she was younger, she’d write down her worry or fear on a piece of paper, then put the paper in a box. It was a tangible way for her to put her worries down on paper and release them. Now that she’s a teen, she’s replaced the worry box with a journal. She uses it much the same way to put her worries down on paper and let them go.
After doing CBT for several years, my daughter’s therapist recommended she explore adding medication to her treatment. The therapist explained that while CBT was helping, adding medication could help more. For this, she needed to see a psychiatrist because where we lived, as in most states, psychologists (like our therapist) could not prescribe medication as they lack the specialized training and certification needed for that.
Per the NIMH, the kinds of medications used to manage anxiety disorders include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and beta-blockers. The NIMH advocates working closely with a health care provider to manage the use of medication and monitor your teen’s response.
Indeed, through my daughter’s experience with a psychiatrist, she tried different amounts and combinations of medication as the doctor waited to measure my daughter’s response each time. Thankfully, the medication has made a huge difference and has improved my daughter’s generalized anxiety and overall mental health.
If you think your teen may be dealing with an anxiety disorder, a first step would be to reach out to your pediatrician or family doctor as well as a school social worker, or guidance counselor.
A medical professional will know and can recognize the signs of anxiety in your teen and can offer insight, a diagnosis and treatment options. School professionals and/or guidance counselors are oftentimes well-informed when it comes to identifying mental health issues and can offer guidance and support.
In addition to the sources in this article, the National Mental Health Hotline can provide information on anxiety disorders. It is available 24/7 by calling 866-903-3787.
There are so many parents like me walking alongside their teens with anxiety disorders. Throughout the years, I’ve discussed my daughter’s anxiety with other parents and have found many other supportive parents who are ready to learn and eager to share their own teen’s mental health challenges. My daughter joined a support group at school, too, which allows her to connect with peers who understand and can relate to what she’s going through.
I have learned so much about anxiety disorders and believe my teen is receiving the help, tools and support she needs. I know that I can’t fix this for her, but I hope she feels me right there beside her, surrounding her with love.
That’s my wish for all teens living with an anxiety disorder – that they feel loved and supported so they can live their healthiest lives possible.
NIMH Anxiety Disorders: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/
About Katy M. Clark:
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