January 03, 2018

Is Anxiety Increasing in Today's Teens? And How Can We Help?

The Teens in "trouble" might not be the ones you might suspect.

It is reported that more teens are experiencing intense anxiety than ever before, according to a recent feature in the New York Times Magazine.
Anxiety at normal levels is an expected physical and emotional reaction to a real or perceived threat. At more intense levels, it can be debilitating.
Intense anxiety often indicates that an individual’s coping skills are insufficient to manage the particular challenges of their environment. Teens who are impacted by this more intense form of anxiety are often those who appear to be functioning at a high-level and seem to “have everything together.”
The truth is this: many high-achieving and highly involved teens tend to grapple with insecurity and self-doubt that can manifest in particularly crippling fears:
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of not being good enough
  • Fear of not fitting in
From a mental health perspective, we have begun to recognize the danger of this “suffering in silence.”
What intense anxiety looks like
Many teens keep their emotions tightly controlled and use a lot of effort to maintain this control; think of this as trying to hold a beach ball under water so that the surface of the water looks calm. As you might predict, eventually it becomes too hard to contain the emotions and they come out in ways that are intense and alarming, as if you had let go of the beach ball and it rockets up into the air with alarming velocity.
This process of “letting go” of overly controlled and long-contained emotions can take many different forms. This expression of intense anxiety can look like school avoidance, social withdrawal, explosive anger towards self or others, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, or a breakdown of previous functioning.
Social media, teens and anxiety
Social media is a known contributor to teen anxiety; some suggest that it may be even the biggest factor. The problem with social media is that it can be a platform ripe for comparisons, judgments, and feelings of not belonging, and many teens are not equipped with the emotional tools to be able to manage these challenges.
Research on the impact of the 2011 introduction of smart phones on teens is compelling. A recent article in the Atlantic discussing teens and smartphones reported that “teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.”
Whether teens feel worse about themselves because of social media, or whether social media is a refuge where anxious teens retreat to when the world becomes overwhelming, it is worth directly addressing your teen’s experience of social media.
Parents of teenagers may want to consider the following:
  • Limit the amount of time your teen spends per day on social media
  • Encourage other forms of non-screen activity
  • Set up places within the home that are off-limits for social media, such as in bedrooms or behind closed doors
  • Encourage screens to be used in shared spaces only — to encourage accountability and safe usage
  • Make a policy of viewing your teen’s social media sites together on a regular basis
Another good resource for families is the Family Media Plan from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which aids families in considering the best way to interact with social media in their home.
Five ways to help your teen manage anxiety
As parents, educators, therapists, or loved ones, the news about intense anxiety impacting teens should feel like a call to arms. Fortunately, there are many opportunities for interventions on both an environmental and an interpersonal level.
1. Emphasize experience over outcome
Encourage your teen to join groups like the basketball team for fun, recreation, teamwork and connection with others — rather than emphasizing performance, comparisons or resume boosting.
2. Keep things non-competitive
Teens displaying a tendency for anxiety can be guided to less competitive activities such as volunteering, creative expression through art, or yoga.
3. Choose schools wisely
Consider whether your child’s educational environment is a good fit for them. Perhaps your child could get accepted to an Ivy League school — this doesn’t mean that this path is the best fit for their mental health and well-being.
4. Encourage resilience
Resilience is having the emotional strength to bounce back after setbacks or failures. While we can create and/or choose more supportive environments for teens, we must also instill youth with the ability to tolerate places and situations that are stressful. To help build resilience, refrain from behaviors like letting your teen stay home from school because they are worried about a quiz. Instead of “helping” them manage their anxiety by avoiding challenging situations, truly help teens by expecting them to approach life’s difficulties. By doing so, they will start to build confidence in their ability to handle discomfort.
5. Monitor use of screens and social media
As discussed, we should help kids set appropriate limits on screen time, and also provide education on ways to respond to the challenges that go along with this type of social engagement. Parents can be open to, and even initiate, conversations with teens about their experience using social media.
Help is available
In closing, if your teen demonstrates a high level of worry, perfectionism, rigidity or distress related to fears — you may want to consider taking them to counseling. The good news is that anxiety is a highly treatable condition!
Treatments effective for addressing the symptoms of anxiety include:
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): to help your teen identify and challenge fearful thinking
  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): to help your teen face their fears and respond more effectively
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and other Third Wave Behavioral Therapies: to help your teen decrease avoidance and relate differently to distressing thoughts, feelings and sensations
Medication can also be indicated for the treatment of anxiety and may be best when paired with the support of therapy.
With more awareness and attention to our teens who are suffering in silence, we can start to take better care of this next generation.
And in the words of Maya Angelou, “when we know better, we do better.”
Get information about professional treatment for anxiety.
Angela Picot Derrick is a clinical psychologist and the Senior Director of Clinical Services at Eating Recovery Center of Chicago and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. Insight Behavioral Health Centers provides specialized treatment for mood and anxiety disorders at five Chicago, Illinois treatment centers and one center located north of Austin, Texas in Round Rock. Dr. Derrick has studied and treated eating and mood disorders for over 15 years and is honored to help her clients build hope, self-compassion and resilience as they work towards recovery. 
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