The New York Times published an extensive article describing how severe teenage anxiety is at an all-time high. The article featured several teenagers with varying forms of anxiety and looked to find why young adults have reached this level. This can include young adults, teenagers, and children.
Anxiety has become the number one reason, over depression, which college students identify when seeking counseling help. The American College Health Association found in 2016 that 62 percent of undergraduates report overwhelming anxiety — up from 50 percent in 2011.
Healthy Mind Matters radio program looks at how to help recognize anxiety in youth and help them self-manage and seek support.
The role of parents
There are normal anxieties that everyone develops. For example, a 2-month old baby will start to identify faces, including realizing they are strangers. There is a psychological reaction that happens by the baby to the unknown person — “stranger anxiety” as Bruce Poulsen, lead psychologist for Primary Children’s Hospital, described on Healthy Mind Matters weekly radio program.
Stranger anxiety and other fight-or-flight responses are normal and necessary. But there are times when anxious moments become a debilitating major problem. A major anxious moment, for example, is in the transition to junior high age — and parents need to help with those stressful transitions.
“Junior high, in the best of circumstances, is a very new experience and parents can recognize and remember that. Kids are typically faced with navigating lots of different teachers instead of just one or two,” Poulsen said. “This is a new form of stress.”
Let the kids know that what they are experiencing has a name: anxiety. It works to normalize the matter and help make it understandable. Be understanding, give encouragement, don’t minimize, and offer to be there for help.
Healthy Mind Matters segment: The Role Parents Play in Helping Their Child Manage Stress
Recognizing and reacting to a teen’s anxiety
Every child is different — different emotions, different reactions. These distinctions can ring true between one of your children versus another of your children. As parents, we can recognize common behaviors and severe anxiety problems.
Poulson describes kids with generalized anxiety disorders, saying, “these are kids who worry a great deal. They are very good at worrying. They may experience a lot of muscle tension and physiological restlessness, hyper-alert. There might be some sleep problems.”
One common trait for those with anxiety disorders is avoidance. This can be avoiding social events or backing away from friends and family.
One way for us to help teenagers is look at ourselves and see what anxiety traits we hold and how we recognize and manage the traits differently. Be an example to your child — show them how to productively handle frustrations.
Healthy Mind Matters segment: Recognizing and Reacting to Teen Anxiety in a Healthy Way
College-age adult help
More college-age young adults are saying they are overwhelmed by the college work-load. In 1985, 18 percent indicated that they were overwhelmed compared to 41 percent currently. There are several potential reasons for this increase including being away from parents for the first time, roommates, or demands of homework.
“You’re going to be listening for expressions of worry, and a sense of your child not staying on top of things academically,” Poulsen said. “What gets tricky for parents is this child is now an adult.”
Poulsen said that when you reach out, connect with them as one adult to another and not in a patronizing parental conversation. Let them know you are there to help them, but also to assist them in setting realistic expectations for themselves. Poulsen said to let them know that it is not all about grades. It’s the experience of finding their passion in career and life.
“I would want to have that kind of a conversation and see if I could help lower the internal volume when it comes to anxiety,” Poulsen said.
Healthy Mind Matters segment: Helpful Conversations with Teens and Young Adults about Anxiety
Treatment for severe anxiety
Once you understand that anxiety is at an unhealthy level, when daily life is impacted, then look to resources to help you and your child. A helpful source and treatment can be speaking with a therapist.
“Medication can also play a supportive role. But it really is about finding a therapist that has experience working with anxiety disorders — because there are particular forms such as cognitive behavioral therapy that we know are helpful in treating (different) anxieties,” Poulsen said.
Therapists can help find the best treatment for your child’s particular anxiety manifestations. Your primary care doctor can help refer you to a therapist in your coverage area. School counselors can also offer good references.
Healthy Mind Matters segment: Treatment for Severe Anxiety
For more podcasts on teenage anxiety and other helpful conversations on emotional wellness, visit Healthy Mind Matters on KSL Radio.