Anxiety in Teens is Rising

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1/3 of adolescents have had an anxiety disorder at some time in their youth. And these numbers are steadily rising.

Not only are kids today growing up in a world dominated by social media pressures, cyberbullying, a pandemic, unprecedented political and social polarization, school shootings, and the existential threat of climate change, they’re also forced to deal with the mental health consequences that have surfaced as a result.

Practically any one of those childhood-altering events could tip the boat. When bundled together, they become an avalanche that has led to a significant rise in anxiety.

Causes

Although each teen’s anxiety is a personal matter, these are the top three for most.

Growing Expectations and Pressure to be Successful

The combination of standardized testing and a culture of achievement have created a toxic cocktail for today’s youth, who often feel pressure to succeed in ways unknown to previous generations.

A survey conducted every year by Higher Education Research asks incoming college freshmen if they feel overwhelmed by all they have to do. In 2016, 41% of students said “yes,” compared with 28% in 2000 and 18% in 1985.

The World Feels Frightening and Threatening

Our teens have witnessed an increase in school shootings, with the resultant drills and lockdowns in schools. They have seen shootings in public places and terrorist attacks here in America and abroad with many casualties. This has fed the growing perception that public spaces may no longer be safe.

The Social Media Factor

Teens today are constantly connected to social media. Unsurprisingly their self-esteem and worldview practically mirror the responses they receive to their social media posts. It’s extremely difficult for them to resist comparing their life and relationships to what they see others posting on social media.

Dr. Amy Lee, a pediatric behavioral health specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital adds, “Kids used to have more active time with breaks from social pressure. Kids had time after school to go home and take a break to digest social pressure.”

Helping Teens

1. Listening with Empathy

Do your very best to listen empathetically when your teen is talking about things that may be weighing on the heart. While it may seem trivial to you, to your teen it could feel like the weight of the world. And resist that urge to solve the problem he/she is experiencing.

Instead of telling them what you think, invite them to describe how they are experiencing the impact of their anxiety. Once they see that their anxiety is doing more harm than good, they will have a greater impetus to seek help. Teens simultaneously want to feel in control and have the support they need when they feel overwhelmed.

2. Modifying Thinking Patterns

We need to help teens notice the patterns of thinking and responding that can be most beneficial.

While most teens understand that life is sometimes unpredictable, during this time of flux, they often lose their ability to tolerate protracted uncertainty. Many anxious teens get trapped by the following rigid patterns in planning their future:

  1. Perfectionism: “Everything must—and can– be done perfectly” (it’s all or nothing)
  2. Catastrophic Thinking: “If one thing goes wrong, there’s no point in continuing.”
  3. One Path Myth: “There is only one path to success. Anything else won’t work!”

3. Mindfulness

“Many teens assume mindfulness is hours of meditation where your mind is completely blank — this is just not the case,” Dr. Tabatha Chansard, a clinical psychologist and author of Conquer Anxiety Workbook for Teens​​ says.

“I teach that mindfulness is letting your thoughts come, but reducing your reaction to those thoughts. By shifting your attention to the present moment and pairing this with a relaxing activity, like deep breathing, you can teach your brain and body that you are OK and safe.”

Teens who practice mindfulness become more resilient and more adept at handling adversity as well. “Mentally healthy means resilient,” says Dr. Regine Galanti, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Anxiety Relief for Teens. “Being able to handle adversity and unexpected situations. That doesn’t mean that difficult situations won’t be painful — things will still hurt. But when teenagers can adapt to difficult situations, they get stronger and grow.”

Connecting Teen Depression and Anxiety

The teens are experiencing a time when anxiety and worry become more intense and isolating. The challenges brought about through new social situations and mounting academic pressures push teens toward novel experiences and responsibilities, which are accompanied by hesitation and insecurity.

They are stuck between the desire to achieve and the fear of failing; of pining to belong and fearing rejection. And when adolescents believe they won’t “make it” or when they anticipate rejection, their default reaction is to withdraw from you.

To make it even worse, teens often reflexively reject adult input in their pursuit of independence to discover their own answers and solutions. Just when they can most benefit from your assistance, they are faced with huge changes—your advice and desire to help are met with resistance.

No degree of reassurance or encouragement will be enough, because you can’t provide your teen what she’s looking for: a guarantee that everything will turn out just right.

The Desire for Certainty

It’s this craving for certainty that permits anxiety to grab your teen and hold on tight. Add to that an ambivalent desire to be part of a complicated and uncertain social world, and it’s perfectly understandable that the withdrawal, hopelessness, and sadness of depression can take hold.

Your anxious teen is looking for a guarantee that everything will turn out just the way it does in fairy tales. Since you have no control over that, the only realistic goal is teaching your teen to accept uncertainty. And this is no small task!

In the meantime, your teen needs to hear that feeling anxious is perfectly normal! Expecting to be calm and relaxed during such a turbulent time is completely unrealistic. On the contrary, leaning into the anxiety and modeling how to manage it is the most valuable gift you can offer.