Recognizing Anxiety in Teens

“I’m really struggling right now, but when I say something to my parents, they say I’m just being dramatic or that it’s part of being a teenager…why don’t they get it?”  

Unfortunately, statements similar to this one have become pretty common among teenagers. There seems to be a struggle between what the teen feels is significant and important and what the adult sees as valid for concern.  

But here’s the thing about teenagers, they don’t like to open up, so if they are talking to you about something beyond surface level, listen. As parents and adults, it’s easy for us to dismiss what the youth today is struggling with. But did you know that the “average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s”?  

Read that last sentence again. That’s sobering. If our teens are struggling this much, why are we ignoring their cries for help? I think it comes from a lack of understanding. 

Understanding Anxiety  

If we don’t understand why people become anxious, it can be hard for us to meet them in a place of empathy and compassion.  

What Is Anxiety? 

So, what is anxiety anyway? Anxiety is a constant fearful state, accompanied by a feeling of unrest, dread, or worry. A teenager may not be aware of what is creating the feeling of fear, but they know they are feeling it.    

What Causes Anxiety? 

A common source of anxiety I see in my students is a fear of failure. It’s a sneaky-creeping fear that they don’t always notice, but it nags at their every move. “If I fail this quiz, I can’t go to college,” or “If I don’t get my time down on this race, everyone is going to be disappointed in me.”  

Or maybe it’s a combination of fear of failure and rejection. Because of social media and smartphones, teens have the world at their fingertips, but that also means that they are constantly comparing themselves to others, and comparison is the thief of joy.  

Many teens experience a sense of not belonging or a lack of purpose. They are also overbooked and stretched thin trying to keep up with their peers, but they never get to the point where they can say, “I’ve done enough, and now I can stop.” 

There will always be one more activity or one more AP class leaving them with the sense that they are not measuring up. As adults, when we are stretched thin and overwhelmed, we feel it in a big way. That stress can manifest itself as anger, struggles with self-worth, or even an overwhelming feeling that we are failing. The pressure is relentless. We need to remember that the expectation of self-care and the need to slow down is just as important—if not more—for our teenagers. The complexities and stress of adolescence are a fertile breeding ground for “existential angst” or anxiety.3   

Anxiety can be triggered by a number of factors: 

  • External situations – changing schools, peer groups, or experiencing rejection. 
  • Lack of physical well-being – lack of sleep, blood sugar imbalance, and other chronic physiological problems. 
  • Learned responses – imitating parents who are highly anxious. 
  • Trauma – experiences that cause great pain and the memories of those experiences. 
  • Relational fears – fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, and fear of death or dying.  

To some degree, these factors and fears are commonly experienced by most people, but often the inherent changes and pressures of adolescence magnify these fears.  

What Are Signs of Anxiety?  

Anxiety disorders often co-occur with depression as well as eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and others.  

Signs and symptoms of anxiety include: 

  • Restlessness or feeling on edge 
  • Being easily fatigued 
  • Irritability 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Inability to relax 
  • Tense feelings 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Increased blood pressure  
  • Jumpiness or feeling faint 
  • Excessive perspiring 
  • Skin feeling clammy 
  • Constant anticipation of trouble 
  • Constant feeling of uneasiness 

If your teen is telling you that they feel like something is off or they think they may be struggling with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts, you need to pay attention. Unfortunately, raising our hands and saying “something’s not right, and I need help” comes with some self-inflicted and societal shame. 

Because cries for help are so often wrapped in shame, meet the teenager in a place of grace and empathy. You may not understand what they are experiencing, but their need to be heard is real. Their safety and mental health are more important than the inconvenience of investigation. Maybe it’s nothing, but what if it’s something?  

If you know a teen struggling with anxiety and depression, The Harbor is a place where they can come as they are, find acceptance and love, and learn how to cope with trauma, pain, anxiety, and depression. The Harbor meets on Tuesdays from 6:30-8:30 PM at the Legacy Campus. Check out them out on Instagram @cotheharbor