Teen Anxiety: Normal “Growing Pains” Or Something Serious?

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The teen years are tough for everyone: parents and teens alike.

Having two teenage boys myself, I can speak from professional and personal experience. Riding the daily mood swings of a teen can lead to emotional whiplash if a parent isn’t careful. So, how do you know if your child is experiencing typical “teenage angst” or if it’s something more serious, like anxiety or depression?

teen anxietyIs It A “Teenage Growing Pain” Or Anxiety? What To Watch For:

1) A Move Towards The Extremes In Typical Teen Behavior

Everyone feels moody from time to time.  That’s why the “teenage years” get the reputation that they do!  Your teenager is individuating and developing their own view of the world. Some challenging of authority comes with the territory.  Dirty looks and mumbles under the breath are expected. Speaking abusively towards themselves or someone else, on the other hand, may be evidence that they need support in changing the communication dynamic.

2) Dangerous Or Reckless Behavior

If your child is engaging in self-harming or risky behaviors, immediate action is needed. Don’t wait. Risky behavior can include cutting, drug abuse, bullying and unsafe meet-ups with people online. These activities can change the way that the brain functions, increase the likelihood of additional traumatic experiences, and are often very difficult to stop without professional intervention.  The good news is that with early intervention and support, treatment often tends to be more effective and shorter in length.

3) Your Teen “Just Isn’t Themselves”

Your super outgoing child stops returning texts and suddenly wants to stay home or sleeps through weekend plans.  An A-B student has missing assignments and is failing classes.  A noticeable shift in friends or interest in activities occurs. If these changes occur without an obvious reason, trust your instincts. A larger issue may be at hand.

4) The Symptoms Are Lingering

If your child or teen is experiencing distressing emotions for over two weeks without relief, or they’ve had an experience that has definitely increased their stress levels, they would likely benefit from professional help. Research shows that being under constant, emotional stress during the formative years, leads to brain changes that can affect the way that a person responds to stress for the rest of their lives.

As I like to remind my counseling clients, “What fires together, wires together.” The thoughts that we have on repeat in our mind tend to be the things that we believe about ourselves and our world at large (also known as a “Confirmation Bias”). If these automatic thoughts are negative views about ourself and they become ingrained during our youth, they are much more difficult (but not impossible) to change when we become older. Early intervention for distressing emotions can help protect against later life challenges.

5) Your Child Tells You Something Is Off

This may seem obvious, but oftentimes the clearest signs of struggle go unseen.  Even if your child tells you that they are “joking” or that “this is how kids talk,” if they are telling you or their friends that they are depressed, anxious or suicidal, take these words seriously.  This a cry for help or attention and your child needs more effective strategies for handling their stress.  Self-help books to support teen anxiety or depression, communication with teachers, outside tutors, mental health counselors, and group therapy are readily available in most communities and are great resources for support.

And remember: everyone has bad days on occasion. We all overreact, especially when we are around the people that we spend the most time with.  This is most likely to happen when a person is tired or under increased school, work, or social demands. Sometimes a change in scenery, an empathetic ear, or a weekend of downtime to relax and unwind can be enough. If you are open, aware and available, you will be in a better position to evaluate your teen’s needs and give them the support they need, whatever that may be.

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