Considerable concern has been expressed of late about an apparent rise in teenage anxiety. The number of teenagers receiving medical treatment for severe anxiety is on the rise and a variety of theories are being advanced as to why this might be the case.
It should be clear from the outset that a certain level of anxiety (for example: when faced with new challenges) is both a natural response of the human body and a good thing. Anxiety in the face of changed circumstances or new experiences is part of the body’s “fight or flight“ response. It sharpens our focus, heightens our concentration, provides a surge of energy to face and deal with whatever challenge has come our way – an invaluable asset for exams, public performances, college and job interviews, and the like. It is also useful for prompting teenagers to reflect on unsafe situations in which they might find themselves. Given the amount of change that occurs during the teenage years, it should come as no surprise that teenagers experience varying levels of anxiety. Indeed, learning how to control and use anxiety could be seen as one of the many tasks of the teenage years.
Most of the time, and for most teenagers, anxiety is a temporary phenomenon that resolves itself as the situation that prompted its arrival is faced and resolved. There are times, however, when anxiety can become a problem, times when
- feelings of anxiety become very intense so that they begin to envelop more and more of the teenager’s life, or
- their anxious state does not recede but persists over weeks or months, or
- anxiety begins to eat away at the teenager’s ability to manage and enjoy daily life.
In circumstances such as these, anxiety loses its usefulness as a tool to help manage and enhance life and may develop into an anxiety disorder for which medical or psychological support may be necessary.
The causes of such a change in the nature of anxiety from a life-enhancing tool to a potentially destructive force are varied. Genetic, personality, environmental and physical factors have all been suggested among the list of possible causes, and for many it seems likely to be a combination of a variety of factors. Whilst identifying the causes can help those managing treatment and care to find an appropriate path towards a solution, many of the causal factors cannot be eliminated or avoided. We shall therefore concentrate below on steps that parents and teachers can take to help teenagers learn to manage “normal” anxiety in such a way that it retains its power as a tool to help them shape life positively.
Advice for parents
Be well informed. As with so many areas of raising teenagers, parents are required to walk something of a tightrope. On the one hand, seeking to shield teenagers from all situations that might provoke anxiety will leave them ill-equipped to face the stresses of the adult world. On the other, seeking to over-expose them to anxiety-producing situations as a form of “innoculation” against future anxiety may well undermine their confidence and leave them more prone to anxiety than they might otherwise have been. Rather, careful observation of how your teenager handles stress, knowing the classic signs of “anxiety”, recognizing the signs your teenager gives out when they are becoming over-anxious about a situation, learning when to encourage them to face their fears and when to avoid situations are all aspects of becoming a well-informed parent on this particular subject.
Maintain a healthy relationship with open channels of communication. Certainly, there will be times when teenagers reject the advice and guidance of their parents, but maintaining a relationship within which teenagers know they can share their concerns when they feel the need to do so, is an invaluable means of support that can give teenagers confidence through the years of adolescence. If parents are able, when appropriate, to talk about their own experiences of managing anxiety, including times they may have struggled with it, this can help teenagers see that it is not a subject and experience to be avoided at all costs and may well dispose them to be more open about their own experiences.
Watch out for the warning signs and don’t be afraid to act if necessary. Becoming aware of the classic signs both of anxiety and of over-anxiety is something of an academic exercise, but knowing how to act on those signs in the best interests of your teenager is highly personal. It requires the kind of detailed knowledge of your teenager that only parents, and perhaps a few others, can acquire. Of course, parents should avoid any inclination to jump in and take over their teenagers’ lives, but when the danger signs are there, parents should not be afraid to act. If anxiety gets out of control, a teenager’s longer term mental health could be affected so early intervention in terms of seeking professional support is strongly advised. School counsellors, therapists, family doctors are all possible starting points for finding professional help for those who need it.
Advice for Teachers and Schools
Inform students about anxiety, its symptoms and how to find help. The ready availability in schools of age-appropriate resources is as important in equipping teenagers to manage anxiety as in many other areas. Funding the provision of resources covering a wide range of mental health and social issues might be beyond the budgetary capabilities of many schools. However, if it were possible, it could be developed into a major contribution to student health and well-being. Schools are starting to include more aspects of well-being within their social and health education curricula, which is to be encouraged, and certainly the management of anxiety should find a place within such schemes. Anxiety carries something of a stigma of fragility and an inability to cope with life. Handled wisely, this need not be the outcome for anxious students, although it represents a danger for those whose anxiety spirals out of control. Such stigma is often best addressed by openly addressing the subject, whether it be in a classroom setting or in private conversation.
Communicate concerns. Teachers will expect to see a certain level of anxiety amongst their students from time to time, especially during the exam season, for example. However, teachers will often be the first to notice when individual students begin to show signs of becoming overly anxious. When teachers are concerned about individuals in this respect, it is important that they communicate their concerns promptly. Whether that communication happens with the student or their parent, or with someone who has pastoral responsibility in school will depend on a whole host of factors, including the age and personality of the student, the procedures in place within the school, the relationship that the teacher has with the particular student, and so on. Whatever its most appropriate form, the important thing is that the communication happens and that difficulties are not allowed to push that communication aside.
Don’t underestimate the value of encouragement. We all need encouragement from time to time, and encouragement can be a particularly effective means of support for those who are anxious. In some cases it may take the form of encouragement to face a challenge head-on despite the anxiety, but in others it will be about helping a student to find another way of achieving a goal. The approach will vary according to the individuals and circumstances involved. However, the value of the encouragement offered by a concerned teacher should never be under-estimated when offered in the context of student anxiety.