Most adults who struggle with anxiety have been dealing with it since they were teens, some since childhood. The emotional and physical scars of anxiety have impacted their relationships, jobs, health, and ability to enjoy their lives. Not helping teens manage their anxiety sets them up for a lifetime of difficulty. There is so much you can do now to set kids up for success.
How Anxious Teens Become Struggling Adults
By the time anxious teens reach adulthood, they feel defeated. They’ve been anxious, scared, insecure, and sad for so long that it’s hard to believe anything else is possible. It’s also become so familiar, that changing becomes even harder. That means therapy is harder. It also means it takes longer to make significant changes.
As a psychologist, it’s hard to watch amazing people feel so terribly about themselves.
I sometimes want to scream “don’t you know how amazing you are? Look at everything you’ve accomplished despite feeling desperate, sad, alone, and scared for so many years.”
After working in this field for more than 15 years, I know there’s often no point to saying this. Many of them will never believe me.
They have to manage the anxiety to believe it’s possible…and there’s usually a little part of them that’s just waiting to fall apart again.
As a result of not getting the support and tools they needed as kids and having to grow up anxious, they’ve learned to not trust or like themselves.
What You Need to Know About Growing Up with Anxiety
- It’s Not A Phase:
Teens experience anxiety. It’s normal to get anxious before high stakes events like sport meets, finals, the SAT, or a big date. Most people get anxious when they don’t know whether something will work out. However, once these events pass, they feel fine.
Anxious teens are constantly suffering. They feel scared and desperate most of the time. They may get some temporary breaks, but the anxiety just gets worse over time.
The challenges of college push their anxiety over an edge and they don’t fully recover. As a result, the challenges of being an adult are harder to handle.
The anxiety may look different now, but it’s still there.
- Pushing Through Doesn’t Prepare Anxious Teens for Adulthood:
There’s a really hurtful myth out there that letting kids push through anxiety prepares them for the challenges of adulthood. That’s old school and has damaged people for generations.
Yes, pushing through challenges makes you stronger.
However, when you’re terrified, you’re only focused on surviving:
- You’re not learning anything. That part of the brain isn’t working fully.
- Instead, the brain is mostly focused on how to survive.
So, these kids get through being terrified using a combination of these four methods:
Numbing: Make the feelings go away by escaping through drug use, drinking, food, porn, television, video games, and cutting.
Controlling: When life feels out of control, find something they find something they can control to an extreme. This where eating disorders and perfectionism come in.
Reassurance Seeking: When focusing on survival, logic and thinking can’t happen the way they’re supposed to. That’s why they constantly have to ask for reassurance and approval. They know they can’t trust themselves.
Withdrawal: Focusing on survival is hard and takes a lot of energy. Pulling back from people and activities makes life easier.
- They’re Not Being Difficult on Purpose:
Many anxious teens are labeled by parents and teachers as “difficult” or “broken.” They’re not being a pain in the butt on purpose (well, not always).
Their life is really hard. It takes a ton of energy to get through a day.
They put all their energy into holding it together at school or an activity so that people don’t think of them as weird.
- Being an Adult Is Harder for Them Compared to Other Adults:
They have been aware since they were kids that school, work, and life were harder for them compared to others their age.
As adults, it’s harder for them to balance work, marriage, family, and parenthood.
They run out of steam and get overwhelmed faster.
They don’t trust themselves.
They know they can push through anxiety (they already have lots of practice), but recovering will be hard and take a long time.
- As Adults, They Don’t Like Themselves:
They are so used to struggling and being called difficult that they wind up disappointed in who they turned out to be.
They wish they were someone else.
They wonder what their life would have been like if they had gotten tools earlier and had been given the support and understanding they needed when they were growing up.
This is Why You Have to Help Anxious Teens
If there is an anxious child or teen in your life, you have to help them now in order to give them the greatest chance at having a healthy and fulfilling future.
Teens struggling with anxiety have a higher lifetime chance of developing other mental health issues, like depression and substance abuse.
Unfortunately, they are also at a higher risk for suicide. They can reach a point where they don’t want to suffer anymore and don’t believe there is any other way out.
How You Can Help an Anxious Teen
- Teach them that anxiety is a normal human emotion and that lots of people struggle with anxiety.
- Remind them that dealing with anxiety doesn’t mean they are broken.
This will help their self esteem.
- Become an expert on anxiety in teens.
- Read books and articles.
- Attend classes and workshops.
- Learn about different treatment options. Show them that you want to understand and help.
This will help them trust you and feel less lonely.
- Get them help from a mental health professional.
- Follow through on recommendations you get from their therapist.
- This may involve changing your behavior too, but it will be worth it in the long run.
This will teach them it’s okay to ask for help.
In order to learn more strategies to help your anxious teen thrive, sign up for our Teen Resources Packet which includes tips sheets with coping strategies you can teach them as well as ones they can use on their own.
Your teen with thank you for caring enough to do something.
Talk to you soon,