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A Guide to Navigating Anxiety in Teens

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MAY 25, 2023

A Guide to Navigating Anxiety in Teens

Though it’s common for kids and teens to experience worry from time to time, more teenagers than ever experience symptoms of chronic anxiety. In the wake of COVID-19, nearly one in three modern teenagers developed an anxiety disorder before the age of eighteen. 

Parents can sometimes struggle with how to best support their teen with anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety in teenagers can differ from the symptoms shown by younger children and adults, and parents may inadvertently dismiss some early warning signs. But the more you know about anxiety in teens, the better prepared you are to help your own. 

This guide will break down common symptoms of anxiety in teens, how to better understand them, and when to get professional help. If your teen is experiencing chronic anxiety, there are many ways to make it more manageable.

What is Anxiety?

Most everyone experiences various levels of worry and nervousness – when controlled, worry can in fact be healthy! However, anxiety is marked by periods of intense and persistent worry that interrupt your daily life and can even manifest as physical symptoms. Disordered anxiety also warps your perception of danger; the brain interprets even small triggers as causes of high alarm. 

There are several different types of anxiety disorders, but the one most commonly seen in teens is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is hallmarked by outsized worry over common occurrences; for example, being so nervous about going to school that you stay home despite otherwise feeling healthy. 

Though there are a wide array of symptoms that can be attributed to disordered anxiety, there are a few that are most common in teens. If your teen is experiencing any new symptoms that may point to anxiety, it may be time to call their doctor and discuss treatment.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens


A debilitating fear of perceived failure is a common symptom of disordered anxiety. Your teen may overly criticize themselves, hold themselves to unrealistically high standards, or react disproportionately to bad grades. Academic pressure at school may exacerbate this symptom in some teens.


Anxiety often manifests as irritability. Your teen’s body can become overwhelmed with worry, leaving them too tired and stressed to manage their anger in a healthy way. If your teen has been showing more signs of anger and irritation, anxiety may be the underlying cause.

Physical Symptoms 

Headaches, stomachaches, and nausea are all common symptoms of anxiety. Chronic tensing of muscles takes a toll on the body! Your teen may complain of aches and cramps when experiencing disordered anxiety. 

Anxiety can also disrupt your teen’s sleep, leaving them less equipped to handle their worry. Insomnia and night waking’s are common anxiety symptoms as well. Increased anxiety levels often cause sleep deprivation and can be linked to a number of health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression.


Many teenagers struggling to manage their anxiety turn to substances or phones to distract themselves or cope. Marijuana, alcohol, and nicotine vapes are often used to self-medicate. This can become dangerous if your child becomes dependent on these substances to feel better. 

Withdrawal and Avoidance 

When everything makes you worry obsessively, it can feel easier to just avoid it. Many teenagers with anxiety withdraw from their life, by skipping school, dropping out of clubs, and cutting contact with their friends. Avoidance is a sign that anxiety is starting to take over your teen’s life.

How Anxiety Affects Teenagers

Teenagers are painfully self-aware and are just beginning to find their place in this world. They’re also under tremendous amounts of academic pressure, and it can feel like one bad grade can destroy their entire future. Though we may think that teens have it relatively easy, they actually have a lot to worry about. 

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to anxiety because they are beginning to take on adult responsibilities, but are still children who are learning emotional regulation. They still need to learn how to keep their worry from spiraling out of control and learn methods for controlling it. 

But anxiety in teenagers doesn’t always look like what we imagine. Often, anxiety can manifest as fights with friends, retreating into their bedroom for weeks at a time, and meltdowns over bad grades or perceived insults. When your teenager is experiencing distress due to their anxiety, it’s imperative that you stay compassionate and seek to understand their feelings. If your child knows that they are not alone in their mental health journey, they are more likely to accept the help they need.

Academic Pressure 

Teenagers are under an immense amount of academic pressure, especially as they go through high school and begin the college application process. Anxiety is often heightened in times of greater academic pressure, like midterms, and finals. Your teen may fall into a line of binary thinking when it comes to academic success: anything less than perfect is a failure.

Social Pressure 

In the age of social media, your kid’s anxiety levels might be tied to their screen time. Many teens with anxiety turn to social media to cope with their distress; however, social media may also trigger their anxiety. 

The pressure to present a perfect life online may exacerbate your teen’s anxious thoughts. Many teens compare themselves to others they see online and feel inadequate in comparison. These feelings can spur an anxious thought spiral that can be debilitating. 

Body Image 

Teenagers’ bodies are rapidly changing, and this can cause major anxiety. Your teen may feel like their body is totally different from one day to the next, and maybe compare themselves against their peers. The pressure to have a “good” body can be immense, particularly if they’re on social media

Big Changes 

Teenagers are sensitive to change, and any major disruption to their lives could trigger anxiety. Life events like moving states, parents divorcing, the birth of a new sibling, or transferring to a new school can give your teen fresh worries to obsess over. Even if your child previously had a handle on their anxiety, huge changes may cause a flare-up of symptoms. 

Methods for Managing Anxiety 


Mindful breathing and moments of quiet observation can be powerful tools for teenagers struggling with anxiety. Meditation and other mindfulness exercises can help to “retrain” the brain in quiet moments so that it is more prepared for the anxious ones. 

Help your teen find some guided meditations that they like or research other mindfulness exercises that you can do together. Strive to make a little bit of time for mindfulness every day. 

Muscle Tensing & Relaxing 

Anxiety can cause involuntary muscle tensing, which leads to aches and pains later on. One way your child can release this tension and practice mindfulness is by progressively tensing and then relaxing each muscle in their body. 

Here’s how it works:

  • Tense all the muscles in your toes for 10 seconds. 
  • Release them for 10 seconds. 
  • Repeat this with every muscle group from the head down, first tensing the muscle, and then relaxing it.

The benefits of this exercise are twofold. Your body remembers what it feels like to relax its muscles, and therefore helps you to be more mindful of tension that may build. Mindfully focusing on each muscle group and “checking in” with your body helps to dispel anxious thoughts.

Social Media Breaks 

Taking an extended break from social media can give your teen’s mind a much-needed reset. Extended amounts of social media time are proven to exacerbate feelings of isolation and anxiety, and logging off can be one of the most powerful ways to help your teen feel better. Encourage your teen to take a week away from social media every month or so. They don’t need to quit it entirely; after all, it’s how modern teenagers socialize. But keeping one foot firmly planted in the real world helps your child stay more grounded.

5-4-3-2-1 Grounding 

This technique is excellent for moments of heightened anxiety and stifling a panic attack before it happens. The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a mindfulness tool that helps to interrupt an anxious thought spiral and bring you back to the present. 

In this exercise, you name five things you can see, four things you could touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Exercise & Movement 

Regular exercise can be hugely beneficial to teens experiencing anxiety. Taking intentional time to move your body and get your heart pumping can help relieve anxious thoughts and redirect nervous energy in a healthy way. 

Even low-impact exercise makes a difference in well-being; taking a walk each day can significantly reduce symptoms of mental illness. Help your teen to set achievable and measurable exercise goals. Tools like step-counting smartwatches and fitness apps can help encourage your teen to get up and moving. 

Treating Anxiety in Teens 

Very often, your teen will need some degree of professional help in order to manage their anxiety disorder. If your child’s life is being disrupted by their anxiety, it’s time to visit a therapist. Finding the right psychologist or psychiatrist can be life-changing for your anxious teen. 

One form of therapy that has proven effective in teens with anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of therapy in which the patients aim to “rewrite” their thought patterns in response to their anxiety triggers. A doctor and patient gently explore the teen’s response to a scenario or situation that may initiate levels of anxiety or stress. They then work together to find solutions and healthier ways to respond to anxiety-inducing stimuli. 

One of the aims of CBT for children is to help them separate their notions of themselves and their anxiety. By viewing their anxious thought patterns as separate from who they are, teens with anxiety are able to feel in control of their feelings and behaviors. This empowers them to stop anxious spirals before they start, and refuse to let their anxiety “take control”. 

Some teens may also benefit from anti-anxiety medication in addition to regular CBT. If your child’s anxiety symptoms are severe or seem resistant to CBT while unmedicated, talk to your pediatrician about medication options. Your child’s therapist and prescribing physician will work together to form a holistic treatment plan that will best serve your teen’s needs. 

How to Best Support Your Teen with Anxiety 

The best ways to support your teen with anxiety are also the simplest. The most important thing that you can do is to believe what your child is telling you. When your child comes to you for help managing their anxiety, show them that you take it seriously and want to help. 

Keep an open dialogue with your child about their mental health challenges. Listening intently to their concerns and worries will help you learn the best ways to help them. Maintaining a non-judgmental space where your child can say whatever is on their mind will strengthen your bond and show them they are not alone. 

This is also an excellent chance to model the behaviors you want to see in your child. Intentionally practice self-care and productive stress management. You can encourage healthy habits in your child simply by doing them more in your own life. 

Be proactive in getting your child professional help. Research local therapists together and allow them to decide if a certain provider is not working out. You may have to “doctor shop” until you find the therapist best suited to help your child. 

Emphasize to your teen that it is you and them versus the anxiety, not you versus them. Your child needs to know that you are in their corner no matter their mental health status. 


Watching your teenager experience chronic anxiety can be painful and leave you feeling almost helpless. But there is hope for you and your family! Whether your child needs weekly CBT sessions or just some time to unplug and unwind, there are options that best suit your needs. 

By tackling your child’s anxiety head-on and supporting them every step of the way, your family can learn the best ways to get to mental wellness. Being there for your child and letting them

know you’re on their side can go a long way. Managing anxiety can be hard, but with practice, it gets easier every day. 

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