Erin Stewart shares how to recognize and talk about anxiety in your family.

Anxiety is sneaky.

Sometimes, even the person suffering from anxiety can’t put a name on what they’re feeling until it has spiraled out of control. I have battled with anxiety basically my whole life and have experienced periods of relative serenity and periods of ramped-up worries that threaten to take over if left unchecked.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the nerves before something scary or feeling hesitant to go into an awkward social situation. I’m talking about constant, excessive worry or fear that interferes with daily life.

People who don’t know me well are often surprised to learn that I struggle with anxiety and depression. I am generally outgoing and fun-loving in groups, so most people wouldn’t think I fit the anxiety mold, unless you’re my husband and you’ve seen me on my down days or stuck in an endless loop of “what-ifs” or emotionally exhausted after a simple social interaction.

So I know that anxiety can often go overlooked. It is a very private, very internalized battle that is especially undetected in teenage girls who are trying so hard to be perfect — to fit in. And then there’s the added anxiety of social media. Who is doing what? Who is hanging out without me? Who is better/prettier/smarter/more popular than me? Why is no one responding to my post? Everyone hates me.

I’m beyond grateful that social media didn’t appear until after I was out of high school, but with two daughters of my own growing up with this extra pressure, I have been reading up on how to spot anxiety early and what parents can do to help their children, especially their girls.

The trouble is, girls tend to hide their anxiety because it only makes them feel more like a failure. I did the same thing as a teen. I didn’t want anyone to think I was “messed up.”

So parents have to be looking and ready to recognize the signs that their child may be privately battling with anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, these signs could include:

• Emotional changes such as feeling on edge, having difficulty concentrating or restlessness.

• Social changes like avoiding usual friends or spending more time alone.

• Physical changes including headaches, stomach upset or unexplained aches and pains.

• Sleep disturbances.

• Poor school performance (missed assignments, lack of focus, poor grades).

So, if you think your child might be dealing with anxiety, what next?

First, the Anxiety and Depression Association encourages parents not to be afraid to get help. Most anxiety disorders will not get better without professional help.

And even once you do have a therapist involved, parents need to make sure they are approaching their child’s anxiety in a healthy way at home, too. For me, here are some tips that help:

1. Don’t try to eliminate anxiety. You can’t “fix” someone’s anxiety. All you can do is be there for them and try to help your child manage it.

2. Don’t minimize your child’s fears. Ban phrases like “oh, that’s silly” or “that is not going to happen.” The worries are real, even if the threat is not. You can’t promise your child their worst fears won’t happen, but you can promise that they are strong enough to face them, and that you’ll be there to help them.

3. Validate the existence of fears, but don’t reinforce them. Don’t allow your child to avoid everything simply because he or she is anxious about it. And try your best not to act nervous yourself when an anxiety trigger occurs.

4. Acknowledge the strength it takes to live with anxiety. Let your child know you’re proud of even small progress.

4 comments on this story

For me, the most important part of handling my anxiety is first to face it — admit that this is a real thing and that it won’t go away by ignoring it. If my children start to have anxiety, I want them to know that it’s something we can talk about openly, not something shameful or embarrassing.

It’s also not a defining diagnosis. Anxiety is not who your child is; it is simply one piece of a person who can be just as successful, funny and multi-faceted as anyone else. They just might need a little help quieting the anxiety so that amazing person can shine.