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Anxiety in Teenagers

Being a parent of a teen with anxiety

This page added 8th December 2017

Anxiety is the largest mental health concern across all age groups in Australia. Currently 25% of young Australians have experienced a mental health condition in the last 12 months; this is equivalent to 750,000 young people today. In fact, one in 14 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 has one or more anxiety disorders. To address this issue, it is important for parents to be part of the recovery and management of their child with anxiety.

Does this sound like your child or teenager?

Constantly seeking reassurance
Crying before going to school
Refusing to return to school after school breaks and weekends
Uncontrollable crying and tantrums when worried
Complaints of frequent stomach-aches, headaches, or other physical ailments
Excessive shyness and avoidance of social situations
Sudden and frequent panic attacks
Have trouble concentrating, is forgetful and easily distracted
If you answered “yes” to any of these scenarios, your child might be experiencing anxiety.

As a parent of a child with suspected or a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder, it is natural to be worried about your child’s wellbeing, and more importantly whether you feel you have the capability to provide appropriate and competent support for your child needs. The first step in developing competency is to gain a better understanding of what anxiety is and what strategies you can apply to your day-to-day living to improve your child’s lived experience.

Anxiety is normal. At some stage in their life, to varying degrees, everyone experiences anxiety. It serves as an adaptive function to alert us to threats, protect us from danger, and helps initiate behaviour to achieve certain goals. For example, the “fight-flight-freeze” response prepares our body to react to potentially threatening stimuli in the environment. Our heart will beat faster to pump more oxygenated blood to our muscles so we can escape the dangerous threat. Without it we would not survive. It is normal for some children to be afraid of the dark or to be worried about starting at a new school/club, and for older children and teenagers it’s common to experience performance and social anxiety in front of peers.

However, for some young people they will find it difficult and often never grow out of this stage. In this instance, the constant and prolonged fear and worry can cause significant distress to the child and interfere with everyday life. Their anxiety may prevent them from participating in age-appropriate activities or meeting developmental milestones. Ultimately it is the combination of excessive anxiety and disruption in life that helps parents gain insight that anxiety is no longer a normal adaptive process and has become a problem.

How can you help?

The good news is that you as a parent of a child or teenager with anxiety are not alone. Parents play an essential role in assisting their child or teenager to manage their anxiety. When coping skills and bravery is rewarded and reinforced at home, children and teens can learn to tackle their fears, take reasonable risks, and achieve goals of attaining confidence. The following section provides helpful strategies to support anxious children.

Pay attention to your child’s feelings– Bring it to life!

As you may already know, ignoring or suppressing anxiety doesn’t help. However, by carefully being mindful of your child’s feelings and bringing their anxiety to life it can help alleviate the sense of isolation.

Create a worry character for your child or teenager. Give it a name. Or even assign a toy to this role. Personifying worry or anxiety by creating a character has a range of beneficial aspects. It can help to demystify the scary emotional, psychological, and even physical response young people experience when they worry. It can assist in reactivating the logical part in the brain with children learning to separate their irrational anxiety-prone self from the rational fully-functioning self.

Stay calm and slow down
Take a moment to fully understand the situation. Before jumping to conclusions, encourage your child to ground themselves and take some slow, deep breaths to release the physical tension within the body. Practice this together with your child for a few minutes. Take your time to take long breaths and even shut your eyes to focus on the sensations within the body. Once they’re feeling calmer, you can then approach what it was that made them anxious or worried.

Make time for worry
As you’d know, simply telling your child to stop worrying won’t stop them from doing so—or worse they may come to believe that worrying should be avoided as an incorrect response to coping. By allowing your child to worry openly, in short and small doses, it can help them to experience their feelings more openly and reflect on why they felt that way. Schedule a time in the day and call it “Worry Time”. It can last between 10 to 15 minutes. Children and teenagers are encouraged to release all of their worries down onto paper and file it away in a “Worry Box”. When the 15 minutes is up, the child ‘posts’ the worry letter and says goodbye to their worries for the day.

The BRAVE Project is a free online self-guided program to help young people effectively cope with their worries and anxiety. There are tailored versions for both younger children (8-12), teenagers (12-17), and one for parents and carers with children who have anxiety. Check out BRAVE:
Have a go

Children with anxiety often worry about making mistakes or not producing work to a ‘perfect’ standard. This rigid way of thinking can exacerbate avoidance of situations or activities—they’d rather miss out on the opportunity than get it wrong. As a parent it may be helpful to emphasise trying out new things and having fun, despite the potential for success or failure. Encourage them to acknowledge that no outcomes are ever guaranteed, you can only achieve a positive outcome if you choose to put in the effort to accomplish it.

Written by Nadia, ADAVIC Volunteer

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