Teen Anxiety: What’s Normal, What’s Not

Fears and anxieties. We all have them, and in many cases, they’re positive. For example, a fear of snakes can keep you out of harm’s way. Anxiety before a job interview can help keep you on your toes, and that little voice of fear that you might experience while walking alone after dark can heighten your awareness and help keep you safe. As you know, however, sometimes phobias and anxieties can be negative. An intense fear of flying, for instance, can keep you from visiting new places. Some people experience a fear of leaving the house, which can be debilitating. Just like adults, teenagers can suffer from fears, anxieties and phobias. Since their brains are still developing, the way they internalize and exhibit these feelings can differ from the way adults handle similar situations. If you’re wondering whether your adolescent’s fears are normal or not, check out this primer on some common signs of beneficial and harmful teen anxiety.

Teens Worries Might be Different Than Yours

Do you remember when your child was a toddler and was terrified of ladybugs and the vacuum cleaner? Although those would be strange phobias for an adult to have, fear of insects and loud noises are perfectly normal for a two-year-old. Your teenager might also have some fears that seem out of place but are actually normal.

For example, it’s developmentally appropriate for adolescents to worry about what others think about them. Your teenager might be very concerned that he or she will be made fun of for wearing a certain type of clothing or for getting a new hairstyle. As an adult, you might want to say, “that’s ridiculous,” but to your child, whose self-image can hinge on what their friends think of them, it’s normal and not harmful in most cases.

Other anxieties common to teenagers include fears about school performance, worries about their future, concerns about upcoming social situations and events, and whether they’ll look stupid doing something. Having mild fear about these situations is not necessarily a negative thing, and they will often grow out of some of these worries.

Fears Can Lead to or be Indications of a Teen Anxiety Disorder

If you have more than one child, you might have found that one was more fearful as a toddler or preschooler than the other. All kids are different, and these differences don’t end in the teenage years. So it’s not necessarily a problem if one of your teens is more shy or timid than another. However, if a fear or a tendency to be anxious is causing your adolescent to alter his or her life to accommodate them, this might be the start of a teen anxiety disorder.

One sign that anxiety might be turning into a disorder is that it affects your child’s physical habits. If your teen isn’t eating normally (either overeating or not eating much at all), isn’t sleeping as usual (either suffering from insomnia or oversleeping often), or is complaining about headaches, stomachaches or other physical discomforts, too much anxiety might be to blame. Anxiety can also cause panic symptoms, such as a fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, or a feeling of doom.

Some Fears Can Lead to Phobias

Many people feel nervous boarding an airplane or having to make a speech in front of a room filled with people. If your teen is hyperventilating and sweating over flying to another state or having to give a speech in his or her English class, this could indicate a more severe phobia.

Other phobias are more overreaching; a fear of the dark, of leaving the house, or of riding in the car will stifle normal development. A teen with severe fears that are not based on one specific activity could find themselves avoiding making plans with friends, getting a job, or taking steps toward becoming independent.

Teen Anxiety and Phobias can Cause Unwanted Behavior

If you feel anxious, you might have ways of calming yourself down. You might take deep breaths, meditate, or exercise. These are all healthy ways of dealing with stress and fear. A teen without these types of coping mechanisms might turn to behaviors that can affect his or her health or safety.

Some teens will become obsessive about actions that they take that they think might keep them safe. For example, an adolescent worried about germs might wash his or her hands dozens of times per day. Over time, you’ll notice red, chapped hands that might crack and bleed. Or your child might adopt a nervous habit, like nail-biting or even hair-pulling.

Other teenagers will take up harmful habits like smoking, alcohol, or using recreational drugs in an effort to self-medicate their anxiety and take away their fear’s edge.

Teen Anxiety Help is Available

The good news is that teen anxiety can be treated. If you are noticing that your teen is not enjoying activities that he or she used to or that there are behavioral or physical issues that you believe are connected to fear, talk to your child’s primary care physician to see if a referral to a mental health professional is warranted.

Depending on the symptoms and severity, your child’s mental health care professional might recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, which is sometimes called “talk therapy,” with or without medication. Your teen might see a private counselor as well as go to support group meetings, where they can talk to other adolescents with similarly disabling fears, anxieties and phobias.

If you are worried about your teen’s fears, you might be reassured that teenagers do frequently have concerns that are different from adults. Also, if he or she is coping well with them and isn’t afraid to live life and try different things, then you might not need to worry at all. If, however, you do have concerns about your child’s anxiety, making an appointment with his or her doctor is the best thing you can do to rule out or confirm a teen anxiety disorder.