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Teenage Anxiety: A Dual Perspective of Parent and Child

Teenage3 anxiety and dual perspective of parent and child

In the realm of parenting, teenage anxiety is a topic often shrouded in whispers, rarely confronted directly. We're inundated with articles about what our teens might go through, but it's time to shift the lens to include what you, as a parent, experience too. This isn't just their story; it's yours as well.

I'm not coming to you as a doctor or a psychologist. My expertise lies in a different, but equally valuable, area: I'm a mom who's navigated these turbulent waters. To deepen our understanding, I've collaborated with Joanna Thornley, a clinical social worker (MSW, RSW) and, more importantly, a trusted friend. Joanna brings a wealth of professional knowledge and experience. 

My journey through anxiety and depression has not only made mental health a topic close to my heart but also something I'm passionate about exploring and understanding deeply. This blog post is our joint effort to offer you both professional insights and lived experiences, hoping to shed light on this complex issue and provide a bit of comfort along the way. Let's dive into this together, exploring the multifaceted world of teenage anxiety from both sides of the coin.

The Reality of Teenage Anxiety

According to the World Health Organization (2023), about one in seven adolescents worldwide are grappling with a mental health disorder. Anxiety, depression, and behavioural disorders are at the top of this list.

Since the pandemic, there's been a noticeable uptick in anxiety among teens. But here's the thing: anxiety in teens often looks different than in younger kids. While younger children externalize their fears (like being scared of the dark), teenagers tend to internalize their anxiety. They worry about their bodies, their performance at school or sports, and how others perceive them (Child Mind Institute, 2023).


Where Does This Anxiety Come From?

Ah, anxiety. It's like that uninvited guest at a party - you're not quite sure how it got in, but here it is, hogging the snacks and monopolizing the conversation.  Let's break down where this party crasher comes from:

  1. Genetics: Sometimes, anxiety is like that heirloom nobody asked for but gets passed down through generations anyway. You know, like those quirky figurines from Great Aunt Edna, but less charming.

  2. Biological Factors: Think of this like your teen's brain mixing up the recipe for a chemical cocktail. A dash too little of ingredients like GABA, and voilà – anxiety!

  3. Learned Behaviors: This is the "monkey see, monkey do" aspect of anxiety. If children witness their parents or caregivers juggling stress like a street performer, they may pick up those juggling balls themselves.

  4. Environmental Causes: Life's stressful events and ongoing trauma can feel like playing a never-ending game of dodgeball. Every day can feel like fast, unpredictable throws coming at you from all directions.  

Remember, anxiety is a bit of a chameleon. It can show up as stress, worry, fear, panic, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and selective mutism. And, to spice things up, it often brings its buddy, adolescent depression, to the party. So, while we might not have a one-size-fits-all solution to show this uninvited guest the door, understanding where it comes from is the first step in turning down its music. 

What Triggers Anxiety in Teens? 

Parenting during the teenage years can be challenging, but experiencing those years as a teenager is a unique adventure. As parents, we want to help our kids, but often we don't even know where to start, let alone what is causing our teens to be anxious.

Academic Hustle and School Scramble: Visualize your teen as they navigate a maze of homework, deadlines, and exams, under the intense pressure of high expectations from teachers and parents. The race for academic success, the looming graduation, and the stress of getting into post-secondary education can make them feel like they're carrying the weight of the world. This pressure can also be compounded by feelings of inadequacy. It's a complex journey through the educational landscape.

Social Stress: Think of the social scene as a constantly shifting landscape, where your teen takes two steps forward and then one step back. These stumbles can sometimes feel like the end of the world to your teen. They're striving to find their way while dealing with peer pressure, including the unseen conversations happening via social media. As parents, we may not always be aware of what they're consuming online, adding to their feelings of not fitting in. It's like navigating a complex social maze, where they're trying to form authentic connections while facing external pressures.

Family Feuds: Home life often resembles a sitcom with ever-changing scripts. In TV shows, problems tend to resolve neatly by the end of the episode, but real life isn't always so predictable. Divorce, blended families, illness, and the natural process of growing up can be major stressors that contribute to anxiety in teenagers. These ongoing family dynamics add their unique flavour of stress, and unlike in sitcoms, there's no guaranteed happy ending in every situation.

Personal Struggles: Facing personal challenges can be akin to taking on a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box to guide you. It demands patience, perspective, and persistence as you search for the right pieces to fit together. Sometimes, it can feel like the puzzle will never come together, and that uncertainty adds to the stress teenagers experience.

Graduation & Future Plans: Stepping towards graduation and beyond is like being at a crossroads with a dozen signs pointing in different directions. Whether it's college, a gap year, or diving straight into the workforce, it's more about choosing a path than finding the 'right' one.

Global Events: Staying informed about world affairs can be overwhelming, much like binge-watching a TV series with constant plot twists. Thanks to social media algorithms, we often get served more of the content that fuels our fears and anxieties about the environmental and political climate. From concerns about the environment to global health challenges, it's a continuous stream of "what's next?" for both teens and parents.

In this ever-changing world, our teens are the main characters in their own life stories, navigating plot twists and character development. As parents, we're the supporting cast - there to offer a script edit, a scene change, or just to applaud from the sidelines.

Remember, while these comparisons are light-hearted, the emotions your teen is experiencing are genuine.  Our job as the supporting cast? To be there with a listening ear, an understanding nod, and maybe a bowl of popcorn for those tough scenes, like trying to complete a level in Super Mario without the cheat codes. Let's take a look at some of the boss levels your teen might be facing:

Understanding Teenage Anxiety: A Parent's Perspective

Navigating the world of teen anxiety as a parent can often feel like tackling a Rubik's Cube – a complex puzzle that, if I'm being honest, I haven't quite figured out yet. It's crucial for us as parents to keep a keen eye on how these symptoms unfold. 

We're not just passive observers; we're active participants in their journey. Managing the complexities of teenage behaviour, with its mercurial mood swings, silent worries, and signature eye rolls, can be quite the task. As parents, it's challenging not to jump to conclusions or rush in to fix every problem. Learning to listen rather than immediately solve is a skill in itself, one that I find particularly testing. It's about striking that delicate balance – taking a thoughtful, closer look at the signs as they present themselves while being careful not to overstep. This isn't your parents' parenting handbook where lectures took center stage; it's a new chapter that's all about listening. 

What to watch for:

Physical Symptoms 

Teenage anxiety, Lose yourself lyrics, physical symptoms of anxiety
Lose Yourself - Emimen

  1. Rapid Heart Rate: You might notice your teen seems constantly on edge, like they're always ready to sprint in a track meet, even during dinner.

  2. Shortness of Breath: They could appear as if they’ve just finished an intense workout, breathing hard, even when they’re just lounging on the couch.

  3. Headaches: You might see them rubbing their temples frequently or wincing as if the light from their phone is suddenly too bright.

  4. Sweaty Palms: At this age, they are most likely not letting you hold their hands, but you may notice them constantly rubbing their palms on their pants.  

  5. Dizziness: They might seem unsteady on their feet at times, or need to sit down abruptly during activities they usually breeze through.

  6. Gastrointestinal Issues: Complaints about stomachaches or frequent trips to the bathroom right before school or social events can be clues. These may become more frequent and can have us as parents wondering if it's just a reason to skip school or genuine. 

Emotional Reactions

  1. Crying: Indeed, tears can be a familiar scene in the ever-changing world of teenage emotions. But as a parent, you might begin to observe your teen having emotional outbursts over seemingly trivial matters. It's as if their emotional dial has been cranked up to 100, where even the tiniest of issues can open the floodgates. These reactions may seem excessively intense compared to the situation at hand, signalling a heightened emotional sensitivity. Other times crying may happen out of nowhere. 

  2. Anger Outbursts: One minute they're fine, the next they're like a volcano erupting over something minor, like a misplaced charger or a changed plan. These sudden flashes of anger or frustration can catch you off guard. It's not just typical teenage moodiness; their frustration meter has become overly sensitive.

  3. Panic Attacks:  For a parent, watching your teen experience a panic attack can be heart-wrenching. You may find them suddenly caught in a wave of intense fear or discomfort, with no apparent trigger. They might seem completely overwhelmed, gasping for air, or finding it hard to articulate their thoughts. Despite your attempts to comfort them, calming them down might feel like an insurmountable task. These episodes can be deeply unsettling, creating a sense of helplessness for you and your teen as they struggle to navigate these powerful and unnerving emotions.

Behavioural Changes

  1. Constantly Discussing Fears: We're all too aware that life has its share of scary moments, and yes, there are certainly some 'big bad wolves' out there. Our teens must be streetwise and savvy about the world's realities. But if you notice your teen frequently expressing worries about everyday situations – those that used to be water off a duck's back – it's a sign to tune in. This shift from nonchalant confidence to a 'what's lurking around the corner' concern might indicate their anxiety levels are edging up.

  2. Seeking Reassurance:  A plot twist in the typical teenage playbook where they often seem to have all the answers, you might notice your teen seeking your opinion or confirmation more than usual. This heightened need for validation, contrasting with their usual 'know-it-all' attitude, can be a significant indicator. 

  3. Changes in Academic or Sports Performance: That classic 'Meh, whatever' vibe might be part of the standard teen uniform, but keep an eye out for more dramatic shifts like grades taking a nosedive or a sudden apathy towards sports they used to love. Teens might swap their cleats for social scenes, and a little fluctuation in grades is part of the high school rollercoaster. However, if you're seeing a 180-degree turn – from keen student to "grades? What grades?" or from sports fanatic to couch enthusiast – it's probably a good time to have a friendly check-in. These changes can be like unexpected plot twists in their high school saga, and it’s worth tuning in. 

  4. School Refusal:  Let's face it, high school isn't always the 'High School Musical' experience for everyone – most of us have had our share of less-than-stellar days, dealing with bullies, or getting caught up in the rumour mill. Remembering that these years weren't the social or academic highlight for many of us can provide perspective. So, when your teen consistently hits the 'snooze' on school life, singing a regular tune of "I don't want to go" or often claiming to be too sick to attend, it's a signal that needs attention. These ongoing complaints or habitual health excuses might be more than just a case of the typical high school woes. It's important to discern whether these patterns are normal teenage reluctance or signs of deeper issues they’re navigating. 

  5. Changes in Focus or Concentration: We've all had those days where it feels like our requests to our teens vanish into thin air – getting them to clean their room or tackle homework can sometimes feel like mission impossible. But if you notice a consistent pattern where they struggle to follow through with even simple tasks or seem to drift away during conversations, it's worth taking a closer look. This isn't just about the typical teenage daydreaming or selective hearing; it's about recognizing when their ability to focus or concentrate takes a noticeable dip, which could be a sign of underlying stress or anxiety. 

  6. Withdrawal or Avoidance: Teens often become cellar dwellers during adolescence, spending a large amount of time in their rooms, however, be mindful if this changes, especially if there is an increased tendency to spend more time alone in their room, avoiding family activities they used to enjoy.

  7. Sleep Disturbances: It's quite common for teens to experience shifts in their circadian rhythm, often adopting schedules that make them seem more like nocturnal creatures than daytime dwellers. However, when you start noticing more drastic changes in their sleep patterns, such as staying up significantly later than usual or struggling to get out of bed, these could be telltale signs of underlying stress or anxiety. Keep an eye out for these shifts, as they're important indicators of their overall well-being.

  8. Substance Use:  It's a known fact that curiosity about alcohol and other substances can be a part of the teenage landscape. However, considering their age and the associated risks, it's strongly advised against. If you catch even a whiff of substance use, it's not just a cause for concern; it's a blaring red flag. This isn't about the typical teenage rebellion or experimentation – it's a serious matter that requires immediate attention and action. 

As parents, while we add a touch of humour to lighten the mood, recognizing these signs is crucial. They help us understand when to step in and offer the support our teens need as they navigate the challenges of adolescence.

Finding Solutions For Teenage Anxiety

Early detection is key. If you notice any of the warning signs, consider some of these approaches:

  • Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Emotion Focused Family Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are all effective in supporting teens through these challenging years. Not every counsellor will be the right fit for your teen, and that is okay! Many therapists will offer a free 15-minute phone call to ensure their approach will be the right fit for your teen. 

  • Physician Assessment: Taking your teen to see their doctor or NP to talk about what you are noticing and what they are experiencing can be helpful. It may result in a suggestion to start on medication for anxiety or depression, but not always. If you agree, your doctor could send in a referral to a child psychiatrist for a thorough assessment and treatment plan. 

  • Lifestyle Changes: This can happen through small modifications, such as eating nutritious meals together at least once a day if possible, encouraging outdoor activities, setting boundaries with screen time and social media, and promoting good sleep hygiene.

  • Home-Based Tools: Practice deep breathing as a family, use anxiety-helping apps, and employ grounding techniques during times of heightened anxiety.

You Are Not Alone

Stepping into the world of parenting teenagers can feel like a maze without a map. But remember, you're not alone in this journey. I'm here with you, sharing my own experiences and unconditional empathy. Let's tackle Teenage Anxiety and Depression together, not as experts, but as parents who care deeply.

Stay strong, stay connected, and remember: that every small step you take makes a difference in your teen's life.


Deep Breathing

Anxiety Deep Breathing Tool
Deep Breathing Tool

Anxiety stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, associated with the fight-flight-or-freeze response. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signalling to your brain and body that you don’t need to react out of fear. Deep breathing helps to regulate your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and increase the oxygen levels within your body. A helpful tool is Box Breathing. Think of a square; you will inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and then repeat until you feel more at ease. 

Grounding Exercises 

Grounding exercises can be helpful during times of panic, and as a regular practice to cope with anxiety. A few tips to ensure it is successful; keep your eyes open so you can see and focus, practice grounding skills before a panic attack occurs so they are familiar, and learn the grounding skills your teen is going to use (this can be helpful if they need a cue or support during their practice). Some skills to try:

·      Touch objects around you, and describe them (texture, colour). 

5-4-3-2-1 grounding tool for teenage anxiety

o   For example, “I’m sitting on a blue chair, and the material feels soft; it’s velvet. The floor beneath my feet is wood, it is brown and there is a yellow couch in the corner.”

·      Run water over your hands, and describe aloud how it feels; hot/cold.

·      Name all the different types of animals you can think of.

o   For example cat, dog, cow, horse, etc…

·       Say the alphabet backwards.

The 54321 Game:

o   Name 5 things you can see in the room with you. 

o   Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on the floor”) 

o   Name 3 things you can hear right now (“fingers tapping” or “music”) 

o   Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of) 

o   Name 1 good thing about yourself 


Sensory Awareness:

o   Begin by tracing your hand on a piece of paper and label each finger as one of the five senses. Using each finger, identify something special to you, representing each of those five senses. 

For example: The thumb represents sight (a label for sight might be butterflies or mountains), and the index finger might represent the sense of smell (a label could be flowers or fresh bread). 

o   After writing and drawing all this on paper, post it on your refrigerator or other safe places in the home where it could be easily seen and memorized.

o   Whenever you get triggered or anxious, breathe deeply and slowly, and put your hand in front of your face where you can really see it – stare at your hand and then look at each finger and try to do the five senses exercise from memory.

Get in Touch

Joanna Thornley (MSW, RSW), Clinical Social Worker

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