How to help a teenager with anxiety

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Anxiety isn't exclusive to adults. The National Institute of Mental Health has said that almost a third of adolescents (13 to 18 year olds) have a form of anxiety disorder.

It's important to be able to spot the symptoms of anxiety in your teenage son or daughter as soon as possible to ensure they get the help they need. Anxiety is a treatable condition, and receiving the right help and support can help minimise symptoms and allow your child to thrive during their teenage years.

In this piece, we'll explore what anxiety symptoms to look out for, plus how you can help a teenager to minimise disruption to their life and reduce the likelihood of long-term mental health issues.

Signs of anxiety in children

While anxiety can be debilitating for anyone, the added pressures of changing hormones and adjustments as they go through education can make mental health issues particularly daunting for a teenager.

For many people, our teenage years are when we feel at our most self-conscious. ‘What will my friends think of me?’ and ‘Will I be laughed at?’ may be some of the questions stopping your teenager from taking those all-important first steps towards getting help and advice.

Knowing the signs and symptoms to look out for as a parent or teacher can help manage anxiety in teens and give them the support they need.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety in a teenager may include:

  • Academic performance drastically declines for no clear reason
  • Their low mood lasts longer than a few weeks
  • Lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Feeling tired for much of the day
  • Problems concentrating either at school and at home
  • Unable to relax
  • Interacts less with friends and family

It's also important to look out for physical symptoms of anxiety. Symptoms include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Fast breathing
  • Unable to sleep
  • Wetting the bed or bad dreams

Watch our video to learn about our private children and young people's mental health services at Priory Hospital Roehampton's Richmond Court, one of the UK's leading treatment centres.

How to help a teenager with anxiety

There are a number of ways you can help a teenager to cope with their anxiety. Try these strategies:

  • Breathe deeply - this helps the body to return to a more natural resting state. Encourage the young person to breathe in through their nose for 4 seconds, hold their breath for 3 seconds and then breathe out through their mouth for 6 seconds, imagining they're breathing away any tension
  • Challenge their anxious thoughts - ask them whether what they're thinking is a fact or an opinion. If it's just an opinion, you can reassure them that they might be getting anxious over nothing
  • Count backwards with them - doing something that ‘fills their mind’ can be helpful as it causes them to forget what they were anxious about in the first place. Encourage them to count back from 100 in 3s, to keep their mind occupied
  • The 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method - this allows them to focus on their senses. Ask them to name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can feel, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste
  • Think of a safe or relaxing time, place or person - ask them to focus their mind on a time, place or person where they felt safe, relaxed and calm. This could be a recent holiday, their grandma or a childhood memory

What to do if you think your teen has anxiety

Talk to them about how they feel

If your teenager becomes wary of talking at length when the conversation is focused on school achievements or what events are planned into their daily routine, try to find out more about how they feel. Get clued up on how anxiety works in children first, so you know how best to approach the conversation.

Asking them what they've enjoyed or not enjoyed during their day can provide a glimpse into how they feel about their daily struggles, including relationships with peers and how they view themselves as soon-to-be-adults in the wider world.

Give them their own space and avoid punishment

If you find out your teenager has been behaving poorly in school or has been keeping something important from you, it will benefit their wellbeing if you respond calmly.

Becoming angry or issuing a punishment won’t help you find the cause of their mental health issues long-term, as their behaviour may be an outward response to their inner feelings. Respond compassionately to help build an understanding of what might be troubling them, while giving your teen their own space. This will help you remain mindful of changes in personality or sleeping and eating patterns, while avoiding tackling the situation with potentially unjustified judgement.

Encourage them to look after their physical health

There are significant links between physical and mental health, with symptoms likely to worsen if a teenager doesn’t get the right balance of exercise, sleep, or nutrition. That's why it's important to implement positive lifestyle choice to help manage a mental health issue like anxiety.

The release of the ‘happy’ chemicals in the brain called endorphins during exercise can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. At least an hour a day of physical activity is recommended for teenagers, and encouraging them to take up a sport of their choice can also help them build their social network.

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