In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a teen shares her firsthand account of how anxiety impacts her life and what she wants parents to know about it.

By Adiah Siler
January 15, 2020
Illustration by Ana Celaya

"God, this test is giving me such bad anxiety."

"I had a panic attack when they asked me to speak in class."

"I can't make it tonight, my anxiety is awful."

Even if you haven't seen it firsthand, I'm sure you've heard all about teen anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and teen years, according to the Child Mind Institute—31.9 percent of us will battle with some form of anxiety by the time we turn 18. And girls are more than twice as likely to deal with anxiety or depression than boys.

When you hear these stats, you might think our anxiety is trivial. Maybe the idea of anxious teens even makes your eyes roll. We're young, what's there to worry about, right? Maybe hearing "teen anxiety" makes you picture a nervous teen obsessively reviewing flashcards a full week before a big test or struggling to make friends in class. But it's important to keep in mind that a teen's anxiety is much deeper and more complex than what you may consider a rational fear.

The signs of anxiety in your child or teen may be obvious, but there are also invisible signs that make diagnosis complicated. I have anxiety that I work through every day. Here's what I want parents to know about teen anxiety and how to help.

What Teen Anxiety Looks Like

Anxiety is the body's way of protecting us, making it so that we have the energy needed to combat life-threatening situations. But for anyone suffering from an anxiety disorder, the body reacts when no such threat is present.

As a teen who struggles with intense anxiety, I can say for sure that it's a complex issue. It can take many faces, and it's rarely represented accurately in pop culture. For me, anxiety wakes me up at 4 a.m. when dread wrenches my gut and hits me hard and fast. For a moment I'm suspended in naked fear, breathing heavy in my dark room. Then most of my day is spent in rumination. I often have trouble focusing on one thing at a time. Many days I don’t have the willpower to make myself concentrate in class, focus on schoolwork, or participate in after-school activities. Anxiety makes it incredibly difficult for me to do the things the school system finds important; I'm too exhausted from all my worrying. 

Whether it be fear, dread, or guilt, anxiety can present itself in many forms. For instance, many teens struggle with social anxiety, which is the fear of social or performance situations, but others with anxiety don't find socializing daunting at all and are instead anxious about other specific scenarios. Some anxiety may be triggered by the news, separation, earlier trauma, or something that they can't necessarily point out. Certain types of anxiety can also be activated or triggered by copious amounts of schoolwork or the general atmosphere of school. In recent years the number of school-related traumatic incidents, such as shootings and assaults on school grounds, have increased dramatically. While lockdown drills and preparations are meant to help, they make it much harder to concentrate while in class. Lots of kids struggle to keep their grades up and get all of their schoolwork done with such fears weighing down on them constantly.

What Teen Anxiety Feels Like

Anxiety can feel like a mounting pressure, a deep sense of dread, a persistent restlessness, or a plethora of other things. Days and nights are full of never-ending streams of thought; Did I leave my candle burning? Did my joke in third period hurt anyone's feelings? Is my mother alive? Is my father? Are my friends mad at me? Did I annoy anyone today? Do I even deserve to be treated nicely? When your brain moves a mile a minute, it can be hard to keep up. I know that personally, anxiety makes it almost impossible for me to function the way a typical teen would. It makes me lose sleep and care less about the things I’m deeply passionate about, and it makes me less motivated. Teen life is complicated enough as is without the added stress of dealing with mental illness. 

We all feel anxiety, but for teens, it can sometimes feel insurmountable. In times of crisis, there's nothing more powerful or soothing than the patience and understanding of a loved one.

How Parents Can Help

 The good news is high school students today are more likely to see a mental health professional compared to teens in the '80s, according to the Child Mind Institute. That means that bringing up a conversation about anxiety with your teen won't be as taboo as it might have been when you were our age. However, it can still be stressful or embarrassing for your teen to have a discussion about anxiety with a parent, especially if we feel like we will be judged or dismissed for our feelings.

Look for warning signs

A good place to start may be to keep an eye out for the warning signs of anxiety. Anxiety can make teenagers feel exhausted, drained, and frustrated. Sometimes teens trapped in a cycle of anxious thoughts may adopt repetitive behaviors a parent could identify. If you perceive annoyance, anger, or exhaustion, try to think about what might be making your child act this way.

Share your own experience

Another good tactic to encourage healthy communication about anxiety is to share your own experiences. Have you ever felt intense anxiety? Maybe had a panic attack? How did it make you feel? You can speak personally to open up a dialogue about mental health with your child and help them feel less alone. 

Start a dialogue

If you're concerned that your child is struggling with anxiety, the best thing to do is to reach out to them as soon as possible and establish an open conversation. Let them know that there are professionals they can talk to. It may be hard for your child to articulate every symptom they're experiencing, but having someone to talk to can be life-changing, and possibly save your child's life. No one should have to deal with the burden of mental illness alone. Let your child know that you're there for them, even if that seems obvious to you.

Adiah Siler is an 18-year-old senior at a local arts school in Pennsylvania, where she studies writing. She's active in the political scene in her community.

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