Curious When to Worry About Your Teen's Anxiety?

These 10 signs can help tease out potential problems from normal teen angst.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

Sebastian Unrau/Unsplash
Source: Sebastian Unrau/Unsplash

The Pew Research Center published a report in February 2019 showing that most U.S. teens (70%) see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. NBC News has reported, based on CDC data, that anxiety and depression are on the rise among America’s youth. As parents, this can be scary if we aren’t confident in recognizing the signs of anxiety in teens, or if we don't understand how to help them manage whatever anxiety they could be experiencing.

Yet teen anxiety isn’t something we should automatically freak out about—some amount of it is completely normal. Anxiety can be a critically useful emotion. When experienced at a healthy level, it can alert your teen to things they care about, actions they need to take, and can even enhance their performance.

However, anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, varying from situation to situation and person to person. And sometimes anxiety can be unhealthy. Knowing the early signs of anxiety in teens can help us help our teens maintain a positive relationship with anxiety.

What are some of the most common signs of anxiety in teens?

1. Angry emotional outbursts

Occasional emotional outbursts are a normal part of adolescent behavior. However, any uptick in their frequency or volatility can be cause for concern. 

A common sign of anxiety in teens is intense or nervous reactions that seem especially exaggerated or too intense for the stressor. Because anxiety tends to be a sort of emotional accelerant, it is almost always an element of strong emotions.

Benedict Tahjar/Unsplash
Source: Benedict Tahjar/Unsplash

2. Avoidance of people or activities that were once enjoyable

When it comes to withdrawal, a change in routine or pattern of behavior can be important to pay attention to. Although time alone is an important part of teen development, too much time alone or refusal to engage in social activities can be an early sign of social anxiety.

Similarly, refusals to speak to friends and family, speak in class, or attend social events with peers for fear they will embarrass themselves can signal social anxiety that deserves your attention. A key element of social anxiety is the length to which sufferers will go to avoid uncomfortable situations, which in turn damages their school, performance, and social relationships. If you notice your teen starting to avoid things he once enjoyed, pay attention and ask him about it.

3. Fixated on media

In 2012, the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50%. It was also the year when rates of teen anxiety, depression and suicide began their steep climb.

Cellphones, along with tablets, laptops, and game systems, are now normal equipment for teens. As a result, they seem to spend more time with their electronics than doing just about anything else.

Our teens are definitely feeling the impact of their screen time. Dr. Jean Twenge, who researches generational trends, took a provocative look at whether smartphones had ruined a generation.

She notes, “In an information economy that rewards higher education more than early work history, parents may be inclined to encourage their kids to stay home and study rather than to get a part-time job. Teens, in turn, seem to be content with this homebody arrangement—not because they’re so studious, but because their social life is lived on their phone. They don’t need to leave home to spend time with their friends.”

Obviously, spending time on social media isn’t socializing, and the rise of teen anxiety seems to be crowding in around the edges.

4. Persistent trouble sleeping

The average teen needs nine hours of sleep a day. Yet many of our teens are getting less than seven hours of sleep a night.

Everyone tends to be crankier when they are tired. They’re also at greater risk of experiencing depression and anxiety. If your teen is regularly sleep-deprived, you may have found a sign of anxiety in your kid.

5. Complaints of anxiety

This may seem like an obvious warning sign; however, it’s quite easy to underestimate the severity of our teen’s anxiety and worry. After all, teens’ emotional reactions generally tend to be exaggerated.

A starting point to judging how serious anxiety might be is to listen for how often they describe their feelings with synonyms for anxiety, like “worried,” “scared,” “panicked,” “afraid,” or “stressed,” and how often they seem to experience it.

In addition to noticing their emotional vocabulary, note how they experience these feelings. Do they use these words playfully? Do they have a hard time saying them without tears or raising their voice?

The more often and severely a teen is feeling anxiety, the more we should take note as parents.

6. Anxiety about their anxiety

Anxiety about their experience of anxiety can heighten anxiety, so this is a key symptom to keep an eye on. Nervousness, fear, anxiety, or worry that is too intense, too constant, or preoccupies a teen are all signs of the kind of anxiety that can fairly easily overwhelm a teen.

7. Fears that don’t make sense

Unhealthy anxiety tends to be based on unlikely or irrational situations, whereas healthy anxiety tends to occur when cogent concerns emerge. To get a handle on which your teen may be experiencing, ask yourself if their anxiety makes sense.

A peer’s criticism or a poor grade can trigger healthy feelings of concern and worry, which can drive solutions. However, if your teen experiences fears of unrealistic failure or rejection, it could be a signal of irrational anxiety that tends to drive more severe anxiety.

8. Drinking

Teen drug and alcohol use has increased along with the uptick in teen anxiety and depression. As of 2016, roughly 20% of kids were drinking alcohol by the time they were 15. And a bit more than 10% of 16- to 17-year-old teens were binge drinking.

Excessive teen drinking hinders verbal learning and memory. The more that teens binge drink, the greater the impairment of their verbal learning and memory becomes. This may drive increased anxiety because of the pressure teens feel to perform academically.

When teens drink, according to researchers at Loyola University Health System, they may be permanently changing brain connections and altering the system that produces the hormones they need to respond to stress. These changes can lead to anxiety and depression later in life.

Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

9. Cannabis use

Although many consider cannabis to be safe, it might not be as harmless as most assume—in part because it is unregulated. As a result, the chemical makeup and dosing are unpredictable—especially with edibles and alternative methods of consumption.

This is especially problematic because teens tend to use edibles.

The unpredictable dosing and chemical makeup in edibles make their use even more of a wild card for teens. Adolescent brains are “exquisitely vulnerable” and at higher risk of psychosis, social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts to which cannabis and cannabinoid use has been linked.

10. Physical signs

There are several indirect physical signs of anxiety in teens. These include, but aren’t limited to, skin picking, pulling out hair (including eyebrows and eyelashes), nail-biting, frequent headaches/migraines, chronic upset stomach, and irritable bowels.

Recognizing the signs of anxiety in teens can be quite difficult and taking control of anxiety even more challenging. The teen years are filled with tremendous physical, mental, and emotional change anyway, so telling the difference between normal teen angst and anxiety often requires paying close attention and a willingness to ask for help if you are uncertain.

For more support, sign up for my free mini e-course to learn more about taking control of anxiety and harnessing it for good.