When Your Teen Has an Anxiety Disorder - Fairview Health Services
 
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When Your Teen Has an Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is a normal part of life. This feeling of worry alerts us to threats and prompts us to take action. But for some teens, anxiety can get so bad it causes problems in daily life. The good news is that anxiety can be treated to help relieve symptoms and help your teen feel better. This sheet gives you more information about anxiety and how to get your child help so he or she feels better.

Young girl clutching her book looking anxious.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is like an alarm bell in your brain. When you’re threatened, the alarm goes off and tells your body to protect you. People feel anxious when they are in danger and need to get to safety. The need to succeed also causes anxiety. Teens may feel anxious doing schoolwork or learning to drive, for example. In many cases, feeling anxiety is perfectly normal.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder?

With an anxiety disorder, the body responds as if it were in danger. But the response is inappropriate. Sometimes, the anxiety is way out of proportion to the threat that triggers it. Other times, anxiety occurs even when there is no clear threat or danger. An anxiety disorder often disrupts the teen’s work, school, and relationships. Below are some common symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

  • Physical symptoms such as:

    • Frequent headaches

    • Stomach problems

    • Sweating or shakiness

    • Trouble sleeping

    • Muscle tension

    • Startling easily

  • Constant fear for personal safety or safety of friends and family

  • Clingy behavior

  • Problems concentrating or relaxing

  • Irritability

  • Critical, self-conscious thoughts about what others may be thinking

  • Reluctance to attend parties or other social events

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. Its symptoms are slightly different from other anxiety disorders. Someone with OCD has constant, intrusive fears (obsessions). Examples include relentless fears about germs or worry about leaving the door unlocked or the stove on. Certain behaviors (compulsions) are done to help relieve the fear and anxiety. These include washing hands over and over or checking a lock or stove constantly. If your teen shows any of the following signs, see a healthcare provider:

  • Excessive handwashing.

  • Checking things over and over, like lights or locks.

  • The overwhelming need to do certain tasks in a certain order or have items arranged or organized in a certain way. If this routine gets altered, your teen gets very upset or angry.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is another type of anxiety disorder. Teens with panic disorder have panic attacks. These are sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear along with physical symptoms such as chest pain, a pounding heartbeat, dizziness, and problems breathing. The attacks strike out of the blue with little or no warning. During a panic attack, the teen may feel like they are being smothered. They may feel a sense of unreality or of impending doom. And they often feel like they’re about to lose control. Often, the teen will avoid any place where they’ve had an attack out of fear of having another one. In some cases, people who have had panic attacks become so afraid of having another attack that they stop leaving their homes, a condition called agoraphobia. If your teen shows any signs of panic disorder, see a healthcare provider right away for evaluation and treatment.

What’s the Next Step?

Left untreated, an anxiety disorder can affect the quality of your child’s life, including school work, after-school activities, and relationships. That’s why it’s important to seek help right away if you suspect your child might have an anxiety disorder. There is no specific test for anxiety disorders, but your child’s healthcare provider will ask questions, and may want to do tests to rule out other problems.

Treating Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is often treated with therapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

  • Therapy (also called counseling) is a very helpful treatment for anxiety. When done by a trained professional, therapy helps the teen face and learn to manage anxiety.

  • Medications can help manage symptoms. One or more medications may be prescribed to treat anxiety disorder.

    • Anti-anxiety medications relieve symptoms and help the teen relax. These medications may be taken on a regular schedule, or taken only when needed, according to the healthcare provider’s instructions.

    • Antidepressant medications are often used to treat anxiety. They help balance brain chemicals. They can be used even if your child isn’t depressed. These medications are taken on a schedule. They take a few weeks to start working.

Medications can be very helpful. But finding the best medication for your child may take time. If medications are prescribed, follow instructions carefully. Let your healthcare provider know how your child is doing on the medication and whether you see any changes. Never stop your child’s medication without talking to the healthcare provider first. And never give your child herbal remedies or other medications along with these medications.

Other Things That Can Help

Recovery from any illness takes time. Getting over an anxiety disorder is no different. While your child is recovering, here are things that can help him or her feel better:

  • Be understanding of your child. Your child’s behavior may be trying at times, but he or she is just trying to cope. Your support can make a huge difference.

  • Encourage your child to talk about his or her worries and fears. Being able to talk about them and hear reassurance can help your child learn to cope.

  • Have your child exercise regularly. Exercise has been shown to help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Call the Healthcare Provider If Your Child:

  • Has side effects from a medication

  • Has symptoms that get worse

  • Becomes very aggressive or angry

  • Shows signs or talks of hurting himself or herself (see below)

Suicide Is a Medical Emergency

Anxiety and depression can cause your child to feel helpless or hopeless. Thoughts may become so negative that suicide can seem like the only option. If you are concerned that your child may be thinking about hurting him- or herself, do not hesitate to ask your child about it. Asking about suicide does NOT lead to suicide. If your child talks about suicide, act right away! Call your child’s healthcare provider, 911, or 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433) right away.

Resources

  • KidsHealth

    www.kidshealth.org

  • National Institute of Mental Health

    www.nimh.nih.gov/health/index.shtml

 

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