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Smart Teens, High Anxiety

Why bright adolescents regularly experience persistent anxiety.

Key points

  • Teens regularly experience high anxiety, and smart teens are at even greater risk.
  • Their anxiety is not only about the present—but also about the future.
  • Learn the sources of anxiety among smart teens—and what can be done to reduce it.
Molnar Balint/Unsplash
Source: Molnar Balint/Unsplash

Anxiety plagues just about everyone. We have a nervous system that evolution shaped quite imperfectly, such that we are appropriately frightened by an approaching leopard and inappropriately—and quite outlandishly—frightened by having to stand up and address a group. We grow anxious by virtue of what is happening right now; we grow anxious thinking about the future; and we even grow anxious thinking about the past, as if the past could harm us in the present.

Nor is everyone sensitive to the same degree or in the same way. Some children seem to be born more sensitive, attuned even as infants to family squabbles, easy to startle, fast to cry, hard to put to sleep, and always on the verge of some prickly reaction to what is happening around them. Others are made sensitive by family life and become chronically vigilant, constructing their life around harm mitigation and nervous about just about everything, from the unseen, like germs, to the unknown, like life after death. Some people are born anxious, some people become anxious, and some, well, are both.

What smart teen isn’t highly sensitive?

This high anxiety plays itself out in all sorts of ways, and one poignant way is in joylessness. When everything in a smart teen’s life has the ability to produce anxiety, from tomorrow’s test (and there is always another test coming) to her appearance (and a teen is always on display), how joyful can life feel? Anxiety and a persistent case of the blues are thus naturally connected because an anxious person is not also a happy person.

Another poignant source of anxiety for a smart teen is the feeling that he isn’t smart enough, that other kids are quicker, more talented, and just downright smarter, and that they will get ahead and win life’s races while he will topple down the ladder, all the way down to a low-paying job and a life of failure.

Peter, a coaching client, explained:

“I know a lot about not being quite smart enough to do the intellectual work that you intend to do. I wasn't quite gifted in my I.Q in junior high school. I didn't get accepted to a gifted arts program I applied for in high school. Although I made state band, got accolades for jazz band, was involved in my high school's honors theater society, and was a member of the National Honor Society, none of that felt good enough.

“I've had some successes, but just like in high school, what I achieve doesn't seem to be enough. I dwell on the things I can't accomplish, the negative feedback I've gotten. I have trouble focusing on any positive feedback I get. I'm letting this really take me down. Even to this day, as an adult, I mope on the couch in depression, and I’m anxious all the time.”

Nor is this anxiety only about now. What teen isn’t worried about her future, about the future of democratic institutions, about the future of the planet, about all sorts of personal, global, and existential concerns? Like everyone, she will cycle from brooding about all that to pushing that to one side so as to get on with living.

But how can those concerns not create a backdrop of anxiety and a case of the blues? The moodiness of the teen years is in part about what is going on right now, but it is also in part about a grim-looking and scary-looking future. Isn’t this a lot for a sensitive teen to contend with?

For parents

Your smart teen is likely anxious a lot of the time. Be aware of this. Anxiety is no joke; you know that for yourself. It won’t serve either of you if you try to make believe that your teen isn’t experiencing anxiety when she is. Be real about it.

And try not to increase it by your own way of being. If you are going through life in a state of high anxiety, that’s affecting those around you. Get calmer yourself. Yes, that is easier said than done. But if you want to help your smart teen with her anxiety, the starting place is to create a calmer environment—which means creating a calmer you.

Be real, be calm, and think twice about going down the route of supposing that your smart teen’s anxiety is a “mental disorder” to be treated with chemicals. That path has a lifetime of consequences. I was on a coaching call the other day with a client who has been on an ever-changing cocktail of chemicals for going on 55 years. That's 55 years!

Be real, be calm, talk with your child, and refuse to rush down the path of “psychiatric diagnosis” without investigating the logic of construing high anxiety as a medical condition.

For teens

If you feel anxious a lot of the time, try to get clear on better and worse ways to manage anxiety.

Worse ways are smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, popping pills, creating dramas for distraction’s sake, defensively denying your feelings, continuing with activities that you do not really love and that make you too anxious (like competitive gymnastics or high-level violin performance), and employing sexual release as an anxiety management tool.

There are more. Acting impulsively and recklessly so as to try to outrun your anxiety. Managing your anxiety about your lack of control over your environment by stubbornly over-controlling what you can control, like your weight. Dealing with your anxiety by trying not to feel anything, which leads to you cutting yourself so that you again feel something. And many, many more.

The better ways are much fewer in number. Nature has provided us with a score of unfortunate anxiety management tactics for every fortunate one. But even if those fortunate ones are few in number, you can create a personal anxiety management program that suits you and that works for you. Your program might include a deep breathing technique, an anxiety-releasing dance, a calming guided visualization, a meditation practice, and careful monitoring of your thoughts, where you replace thoughts that provoke anxiety with thoughts that serve you better. Will this do the trick? Don’t you owe it to yourself to try and see?

This post is excerpted from my book, Why Smart Teens Hurt.


Damour, Lisa (2020). Under Pressure. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Edwards, Allison (2013). Why Smart Kids Worry. New York, NY: Sourcebooks.

Jensen, Frances (2015). The Teenage Brain. New York, NY: Harper.

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