How Do I Know If My Tween or Teen Has Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, unease, and worry. It can be natural and appropriate to feel that way when facing a difficult or uncertain situation.
But some teens and tweens suffer from anxiety disorder, in which these feelings become excessive and keep the sufferer from being able to enjoy their life. It can cause panic attacks or compulsive behaviors, and a feeling of being unable to do anything.
Basically, anxiety disorder is worry that never stops. It’s strong enough that it can keep a person from being able to perform their daily activities.
In this article, I’m going to go over the symptoms and causes of anxiety, and give you some tips for helping your tween or teen with anxiety.
How Can I Tell if my Teen or Tween is Suffering from Anxiety and Needs Help?
For starters, observe your child and look for symptoms.
I have a free printable Anxiety Symptoms Checklist that you can download to help you.
The symptoms of anxiety can be severe or mild, and include physical, emotional, and/or psychological manifestations. Here are some of the symptoms of anxiety that you should look for in your teenager:
Abdominal Problems Can be a Symptom of Anxiety
Anxiety can cause stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, and even vomiting.
When we are nervous we sometimes say we have “butterflies” in our stomachs. This refers to the fluttery feeling that some people get, which is caused by the flight or fight response. When our body senses a threat, it decreases circulation to non-vital body processes such as digestion in preparation to be ready to run away from the lion or fight the bear.
This handy plan works well when there is something to run from or fight, but when it’s prolonged, or in response to a math quiz, it can lead to unfortunate abdominal problems.
Muscle Tension and Exhaustion Can be Symptoms of Anxiety
Another word we use to describe how we feel when we are anxious or stressed is “tense.” You may not realize it, but we use that word because there is a tension in our muscles that goes along with the difficult emotions.
Muscle tension can cause pain throughout the body, such as headaches. If tension is a serious problem for teens and tweens, they may even suffer from a frightening panic attack. Muscles can spasm and can feel like you’re choking or like a heart attack, which of course increases the feelings of fear and anxiety.
If your teen or tween has anxiety, they may be holding themselves tensely unknowingly. Going around all day with rigidly tense muscles is exhausting.
Does your teen come home each day and stumble back into bed? This could be a sign of tension caused by anxiety.
Restlessness and/or Insomnia Can Be a Symptom of Anxiety
People with anxiety often have trouble relaxing in general and sleeping in particular. You can imagine that going all day with their muscles tensed can lead to exhaustion, as I discussed above.
Similarly, this muscle tension can make it very hard for your teen or tween to relax. Combine this with having a head swirling with worries, and it makes getting comfortable impossible. This can cause restlessness during the day and insomnia at night.
Heart Palpitations Can Be a Symptom of Anxiety
Heart palpitations are part of the fight or flight response, like the butterflies in the stomach. This is when the heart seems to flutter or beat rapidly and irregularly. In the case of anxiety, it can be chronic.
Mental Issues That Can Accompany Anxiety
Tweens who suffer from anxiety can also exhibit irrational fears, known as phobias. They might be afraid of harmless or insignificant things, such as spiders or heights.
It’s also common for anxiety to coexist with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Teens with OCD feel the need to enact some sort of ritual to alleviate anxious feelings. They may have thoughts that they can’t “turn off,” which are known as obsessions. In order to feel better, they have a compulsion to perform some sort of behavior in a certain way.
Obsessive hand-washing is probably the most well-known example. OCD can also include other ritualistic behavior, which usually involve safety, cleanliness, orderliness, or symmetry.
Does your teen brush his teeth for an excessively long time? Does your tween arrange the items on her desk in a certain way and spend a strangely long time “getting it perfect?”
If you notice your tweens and teens having such issues, it is likely that they are also suffering from anxiety.
You may also notice struggles with schoolwork or a decline in their grades. Teens with anxiety can have trouble concentrating and focusing, which makes learning difficult. They also could be so consumed with worries and fears that they can’t even hear their teacher.
Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety
An anxious teen or tween may exhibit excessive sensitivity. Does your tween freak out at the drop of a hat? Do you feel like you need to walk on eggshells around them to keep their mood even?
They might also exhibit depression or social withdrawal. If they have lost interest in activities or seeing their friends, anxiety might be the root problem.
Tweens and teens with anxiety may also be aggressive or have angry outbursts. If you have noticed a difference in your teen’s temper, that could be anxiety.
What Causes Anxiety?
The causes of anxiety are interconnected. It’s complicated. Each factor likely exacerbates the other factors. Let’s talk about what they are:
Do others in your family suffer from anxiety? Before you quickly answer “no,” keep in mind that it may have been undiagnosed for older generations. Seeing a therapist or psychologist used to be considered shameful by some people. Think about how your parents and other relatives behaved…could they have had anxiety?
There is evidence to suggest that the tendency to develop anxiety can be inherited. It could be that this genetic tendency needs an environmental trigger of some sort before the person develops actual anxiety symptoms.
Biochemistry of Anxiety
Those who suffer from anxiety tend to have abnormal levels of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are natural chemicals which help our nerve cells to communicate. which means their brains have trouble transmitting information on a cellular level.
Low levels of serotonin are linked to anxiety. This can occur naturally (so family history can come into play as I said above) and can also be created by your teens’ emotions.
GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a chemical that is made in the brain. It blocks certain neurotransmissions and seems to have an ability to reduce anxiety.
Hormones can also affect anxiety. For example, overproduction of thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism) can cause severe anxiety and panic attacks.
Low levels of estrogen and testosterone have also been linked to anxiety. We all know about PMS and how it can wreak havoc on a woman’s emotions. Well, have you ever considered what this means for tweens and teens going through puberty? Puberty and its changes in hormone levels is often when teens and tweens develop anxiety.
Life Experiences Can Cause Anxiety
It’s common knowledge that those who have been through severe trauma, such as soldiers and crime victims, often have lingering stress and anxiety. It’s like the brain can’t “move on” from the event, creating patterns of anxious thoughts that can lead to physical symptoms.
Has your teen or tween suffered through something that might be causing them ongoing stress? Perhaps a divorce or a death in the family? Even something like a cross-country move might cause ongoing stress to a tween or teen.
And of course, there is also the elephant in the room. What about social media, technology, the excessive anger in our culture, not to mention the stress of COVID lockdowns? All of this is contributing to your tween’s stress levels.
How Can I Help My Tween or Teen Who Has Anxiety?
So, what now? If it seems to you that your tween or teen is suffering from anxiety, then I’m sure you want to help.
Really listen. It’s likely that your teen won’t tell you how they are feeling.
Do conversations sound like this in your family?
“How was school?”
“What did you do today?’
But really listening means paying attention to your tween’s words and body language even when they don’t know you’re watching.
It’s still worth trying to ask your teens how they are feeling and how their day was – it shows you care. But don’t interrogate them, as this will surely make them clam up.
You also should be aware that even though your teen may be the size of an adult, they still might not be able to verbalize exactly what’s occurring in their lives and how it’s affecting them. Even some adults have trouble with this. So try to “read” into the passing comments, complaints, and body language of your kids.
Validate Their Feelings
If you express empathy, it shows your child that you do notice and understand. Let them know that you are doing your best to understand how they are feeling and that you are there for them. Sometimes it can help to just let them know they are heard.
Don’t immediately launch into how you can fix it. Take some time to just say, “yeah, that sounds so hard” or “I’m so sorry that happened. That must have really hurt your feelings.”
Sit with them in their feelings. Let them process what is going on and how their emotions feel before you make suggestions about what they could do.
It might also help if you share an experience from your past. Sometimes letting your teen know that you went through similar experiences can help validate how they feel and give them ideas for how to move forward. But tread lightly with this – don’t turn every conversation about you. Watch their reaction and make sure your input is welcome. If not, go back to just sitting with them in their feelings.
Help Your Tweens and Teens Be Proactive
After validating their feelings, work with your teens to find solutions to his stress. Find a moment when they aren’t overwhelmed to talk about it. This isn’t the right move when they are moved to tears or screaming at you.
When the time is right, sit down and help them make a list of things they could do.
Are they having some specific problems? Maybe they could email their teacher and ask for help on an assignment? Maybe they need to have a conversation with a friend to work out an issue?
Or would some lifestyle changes help? Maybe they need to cut back on extracurricular activities so they have more time for homework, relaxation, and sleep. Maybe they need to do a social media detox. Maybe they need to eat a healthier diet, cut back on caffeine, get more exercise, or spend more time with friends.
Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety
Keep in mind that tweens don’t have the coping mechanisms that adults do. You need to live life, gain maturity, and get to know yourself to develop those. This is part of the reason why seemingly small things can be very upsetting to tweens and teens. Helping them to develop those coping mechanisms is part of your job as a parent.
If you need some help coming up with strategies and relaxing activities for your teens and tweens, read my article about Calming Activities for Tweens and Teens.
I hope I’ve been able to help you understand whether or not your tween is suffering from anxiety, and given you some good ideas for helping. Please comment below with your thoughts! And if you did find my article helpful, please pin and share so others can find it.
As I said at the top, this is part one of a series on anxiety. Please join my newsletter list if you’d like to keep informed of new content! I’d love to have you.
Other articles you may find helpful:
How to Help Your Tweens and Teens Be Less Negative
How to Deal with Your Tween’s Bad Moods