I was not diagnosed officially with generalized anxiety disorder until my early 30s. Throughout my teens, I now realize how some of my behavior was directly related to feeling anxious, and working with teens has just reinforced what I discovered.
Parents, here are 15 things your teen with anxiety wants you to know.
- Some things teens with anxiety do may come off as rude, but it’s because they’re secretly anxious. –I distinctly remember a classmate in the seventh grade passing out birthday party invitations to a roller-skating rink. I discreetly buried the invite in the inner depths of my desk. I ignored the RSVP date and a few weeks later when her mom ran into mine, she asked if I ever got the invitation. My mom asked me why I hid it in my desk and I just explained that I didn’t want to go. The truth was, I was (and still am!) so clumsy and I had no idea how to roller skate. I was too nervous to try in front of my whole class.
- Teenagers with anxiety may miss out on important events because they’re scared. –When I was in high school, I remember rehearsal for a choir concert one afternoon. Since I was very tall, I was put on the back riser. I instantly felt anxious, sweaty, and lightheaded in the hot robe, unable to move much. I was afraid of falling and causing a domino effect a la Home Alone 2. I ended up sitting out the rest of the rehearsal and not showing up that night out of fear. I ended up telling my parents I was too sick to attend.
- Anxious teens’ fears may seem irrational, but in reality, they are not. –My parents put a swimming pool in their backyard when I was 12 years old. One afternoon in high school I was planning on having some friends from my class over that I hadn’t had before. I got that same nervous feeling I did before the choir concert and ended up canceling my plans because I felt “sick.” Now that I’m an adult, I realize my fears of having new friends over seemed irrational. I now understand how self-conscious I felt and the worry I had about whether or not my new friends would like me.
- Anxious teens will do activities when they’re ready. –Parents, don’t push something if your teen isn’t ready to do it. I didn’t get my drivers’ license until I was 27 years old. I was terrified as a teen the handful of times I did drive with my dad. He meant well and tried his best, but my driving outings almost always ended up in tears because of my anxiety. Not driving at 16 didn’t make me any less happy or fulfilled as a teen either—I was a perfectly happy kid for the most part!
- Teens suffering from anxiety may develop physical symptoms. –Parents should remember that if their anxious teen is suffering from physical ailments, it might be worth checking for an anxiety diagnosis. Anxious teens may have trouble sleeping, grind their teeth, have stomach issues, and more.
- Encourage teens with anxiety to have an outlet. –I have loved writing my entire life. It was such a relaxing outlet for me to write in diaries and journals as a teen. If your teen has a passion, encourage them to utilize it. Chances are, it will help them manage their anxiety.
- Talk to your anxious teen. –Teens aren’t too keen on talking to their parents, so don’t fret if they don’t open up at first. The important thing is to just remind them that you’re there for them, no matter what.
- Change and the unknown are hard for anxious people. –If you find that your teen is acting out or becoming shyer as things like graduation, finals, college applications or a big test is approaching, don’t worry. People with anxiety are worried about changes and a lot of times, don’t handle transitions well. I was petrified when I started college. Also, I’ll never forget how my teachers failed to tell me I was doing a reading for our high school graduation Mass. My dad frantically pointed to the program and shaking all over, I managed to do it. It was panic-inducing but I made it through!
- Anxious teens may worry about being a burden. –It’s sadly true for some teens that they may feel like a burden to their family or friends. I remember I used to dread going to church as a teen because I’d feel so anxious and claustrophobic sitting towards the front as my dad wanted. Instead of just expressing my concerns and asking to sit a bit further back, I stayed silent. Encourage your teen to speak out about their needs.
- It’s okay not to understand your anxious teen. –Teens are hard enough to understand with their changing moods and learning how to express themselves as a young adult. Just know that as a parent, it’s okay to not necessarily understand what your anxious teen is going through.
- Your teen with anxiety is grateful for you. –Although they may not show it, I can promise you your teen is so grateful to have you as a support system. By showing them support and respect, you are helping them in more ways than you’ll ever know.
- Anxious teens may resist when you suggest talking to a professional. –While it is way less stigmatized now than it was 20 years ago, some teens still may resist going to therapy. Luckily, there are now online options that make it easier for texting teens to express themselves.
- Let your teen vent. –Make time for your teen! I know parents are extremely busy these days, but stop and really listen next time your teen starts talking.
- Don’t use clichés. –There’s nothing worse than hearing “don’t sweat the small stuff” and even more terrible—“calm down.” A situation that may seem trivial to you could be huge for an anxious teen. Treat their anxiety with the gentleness it deserves.
- Just love. –Above all, just love your teen. Anxious teens simply appreciate that someone is there for them and knowing someone loves them in this crazy world is more helpful than you may ever know.