Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety, fear and worry are a normal part of life, particularly for teens. For some young people, anxiety can be a big problem.

By Professor Jennie Hudson

 

During the teen years, the pressure to succeed at school can increase, as does the pressure to ‘fit in’. Although feelings of fear and worry are common, anxiety can become a problem when the teen misses out on events and opportunities because of it. For many Australian teens – over 140,000 – anxiety, fear and worry have a major impact on day-to-day living. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in young people, and often lead to other mental health problems like depression.

If left untreated, anxiety continues throughout adult life and has a major impact on achievements and life happiness. One recent study in the UK showed that the strongest predictor of adult happiness was childhood emotional health. The key message here is that anxiety problems are serious and shouldn’t be overlooked.

How to recognise if anxiety is a problem

There are different types of anxieties that a teen may experience, such as excessive worry about:

  • what other people think of him/her
  • school performance, safety, family relationships, the future, world events, or their health
  • a specific object, place or situation like the dark, heights, injections or transport
  • something bad happening to you or themselves
  • experiencing sudden attacks of anxiety that seem to come from nowhere.

Anxiety is a problem if your teen is avoiding important activities like school, performances, or social events because of their anxiety; or they endure these situations with extreme distress.

You may also notice that your teen is having problems sleeping, or complains of headaches or tummy aches when they worry. In some cases, anxiety can occur with depression (feeling very down and having low self-worth). When this happens, you may also notice your child pulling out of activities, and a change in his or her eating or sleeping habits.

To know whether to seek help, ask yourself the following question: is my teen’s anxiety stopping him from doing things he wants to be able to do, or messing up his friendships, schoolwork or family life? If the answer is, ‘Yes, a great deal’, then think about seeking help.

 

Parenting style as a hindrance or help

Anxiety lasts longer if the teen avoids the feared situation as they miss out on an important opportunity to learn that what they think is going to happen is not as likely as they thought. They also miss the opportunity to learn that they can cope with the situation. The most successful treatment approach for anxiety involves teaching the teen the skills to think more realistically about the situation, and to gradually face situations they have been avoiding.

It is easy to fall into the trap of rushing in to fix the problem to reduce your teen’s distress, but rushing in to help just keeps the anxiety going. We encourage parents to listen to their teenagers in an understanding way, without judging (as hard as that can be sometimes). Listen to your teen’s fears and let them know you understand what they are feeling and thinking, but don’t fix it for them. Encourage your teen to solve the situation and to face the situation in a step-by-step way.

Teens with anxiety often ask a lot of questions over and over again in an effort to know the situation is safe, like ‘Mum, what’s going to happen?’ ‘Is it going to be okay?’ Another easy parenting trap to fall into is to provide too much reassurance and say,

‘Nothing bad is going to happen. Everything will be ok.’ Instead, we encourage parents to change the conversation with their teen; rather than answering the questions all the time, ask the questions instead: ‘What happened last time when you worried about this?’ ‘What do you think is most likely to happen?’ This helps the teen to discover the reality of the situation.

 

Tools and support

If you think your teen has a problem with anxiety, the good news is help is available. There are excellent treatments available that we know work for the majority of teenagers. See your GP, school counsellor or a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioural therapy. If you live in Sydney, the Centre for Emotional Health, Macquarie University has a specialised clinic for the treatment of anxiety disorders in young people  www.centreforemotionalhealth.com.au

 


Professor Jennie Hudson is a clinician and researcher at the Centre for Emotional Health, Department of Psychology, Macquarie University. Jennie’s research focuses on understanding the factors that contribute to children’s emotional health and working to improve the services available to children experiencing anxiety and other emotional disorders, as well as their families. Hudson authored the book “Treating anxious children: An evidence-based approach” (2000) and

“Psychopathology and the Family” (2006). Her research has been published in national and international journals and her work has been cited over 1500 times in peer-reviewed journals.

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