Your anxious adolescent

Lorna McCallum, O.T. Ret (MB), RMFT
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
May 2, 2021

Adolescence is a challenging and perplexing time, as well as a period of creativity, heightened learning abilities and social exploration. Beginning at approximately the age of twelve and continuing into the early twenties, the adolescent navigates a heady mix of brain development, hormonal shifts and complex psychological tasks. These include the renegotiation of their relationships with parents and peers, and the formation of key aspects of their personal identity, values and belief systems. Given the multitude of changes and the inevitable uncertainties adolescents face during this life stage, anxiety often hums along like a low-pitched background noise. In moderation and as a temporary state, anxiety supports adolescents to remain alert, focused and motivated to deal with life’s challenges. However, for some, their experience of anxiety amplifies to become a chronic, high-pitched siren, interfering with their ability to manage daily activities and disrupting their social and emotional development.

At its base, anxiety is a developmentally normal and necessary safeguard for the survival of our species. Anxiety’s primary function is that of triggering nature’s biological alarm system – the “fight, flight or freeze” response. This state of heightened arousal alerts us to potentially stressful situations and balances out our urge toward growth with the ability to assess for, and to avoid, danger. It is only when our response becomes unrelentingly intense and irrational that it can be characterized as an anxiety disorder. Approximately one in ten adolescents is affected today, and while these disorders are both distressing and challenging experiences, they are also highly treatable.

Anxiety may negatively impact adolescents’ thinking and reasoning processes (cognitions), their emotional experiences, their physiological state and their coping behaviours. Symptoms include:

Cognitive: Distorted, catastrophic and ruminative thought patterns, challenges with concentration and with decision-making.

Emotional: Irritability, tearfulness, low mood, poor self-esteem, unstable family or peer relations.

Physical: Sleep and appetite disturbances, sweating, tremulousness, rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, frequent stomachaches and headaches, feelings of being unreal or being detached from situational reality.

Behavioural: Persistent avoidance of the feared object or situations, poor performance in (or dropping out of) school, substance use.

The possible causes of anxiety disorders represent the knitting together of multiple biological and environmental influences. These include:

Gender: Twice as many adolescent females than males develop anxiety disorders. The specific reasons remain in question, but possible influences include hormonal changes at puberty, increased emphasis on and exposure to relationship stressors, and negative self-perceptions due to identification with female stereotypes.

Genetics: Researchers have identified evidence for the genetic transmission of anxiety, and adolescents with anxious parents have a significantly higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

Temperament: Many anxious adolescents appear to be sensitized to risk from birth. They demonstrate a cautious style of responding to even minor changes in their environment and as a result are more likely than their outgoing peers to develop a disorder.

Environmental stressors: Exposure to violence, traumatic events, bullying, serious illness, complex family dynamics, the loss of a loved one or of a friendship – these may all precipitate clinical levels of anxiety.

As the most invested support system in your adolescent’s life, you have a key role to play in supporting their anxiety management work. The following are some strategies that may assist your child in their quest to break free from anxiety:

Empathizing: It can be difficult to connect with an anxious adolescent. While they don’t want to feel the way they do, they may struggle to know how to ask for help. Entering your child’s world without judgment will ensure that they feel understood and may open the door for you to offer your assistance.

Collaborative problem solving: Help your adolescent shift the emphasis away from overwhelming emotion by using externalization (reinforcing that “the problem is the problem” and not them). Then, ally with them to develop more flexible and logical solutions to their challenges.

Modeling: Research suggests that when parents demonstrate for their child ways to successfully cope despite feeling anxious, they can instill a potent form of learning about living in the moment, accepting uncertainty, celebrating effort and facing fears.

Counselling: Talking with your teen about counselling and helping them get connected with a counsellor is a meaningful act of support that normalizes and highlights the positivity of asking for help when we need it. All Manitobans can access Manitoba Blue Cross's counselling services for concerns regarding anxiety and other developmental hurdles by finding the available support and booking an appointment here.

For those adolescents whose path includes the propensity for anxiety, learning to be present for this uncomfortable feeling and to find ways to let it lessen can ultimately result in increased resiliency and confidence to navigate life’s challenges.