Recognizing Anxiety In Your Teenager

Teens are notoriously independent.

They have friends and social lives separate from you. They're responsible for school assignments. They may be juggling dance, track, and the drama club while still maintaining straight-A's and staying on the honor's list. They work alone in their room, and whenever you duck your head in, you feel like you're bothering and distracting them. You wish that they talked more to you, or joined in family dinner, but because they're doing so well with school and extracurricular activities, you wonder if you should even worry.

Maybe you should.

There is a tricky balance in allowing your teenager to maintain the necessary independence for growing up while still making sure that they're getting the support they need.

Many of the teenagers I work with are high performers, academically successful and engaged with peers. But one of the reasons these teens are so successful is their paralyzing worry about failure. Any loss of a few points on an assignment, or a few seconds off their most recent lap time on the swim team, leads to frustration, doubt, and a plummeting self image.

Your successful teenager may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Failure is a healthy part of life. It is impossible to be the best at everything. This can be hard to deal with.

As a therapist, I recognize that I am not the best fit for everyone. My clinical approach, incorporating relaxation, mindfulness, and cognitive coping skills, isn't helpful for every 4-19 year old that comes to see me. I know that. And yet, it took me some time to feel comfortable that not every client would have a great clinical outcome, even though the research tells us this is true for every therapist.

For your successful teenager, they may be able to understand rationally that a low grade doesn't mean that they're any less intelligent than before - but there can be an underlying anxiety that poor grades or poor performance equates to derailing their plan for their life.

So, try and open up the communication with them.

Share times that you have failed. Encourage conversation at the dinner table, where everyone in the family shares one positive and one negative thing that happened that day. Build that recognition that failure is an important part of living. 

And, consider counseling.

Some teens with anxiety need more than just open communication - they need to build more intensive strategies to manage these anxious thoughts and behaviors. Or, while we expect teenagers to be independent from you, if you can't get them to open up or include you in conversations at all, it may be helpful for you and for them to have a new outside person to consult with. 

You will want to work with a therapist or counselor who tailors their approach to your needs - whether your teen would prefer to build strategies for managing intrusive thoughts, or would prefer to just engage in rapport-building and problem solving. And, don't be afraid to call around. that relationship you and your teen build with the counselor is the best predictor of a positive change in your teen's life.

Contact Kelsey in St. Louis, MO and Webster Groves to set up a free 15-minute assessment to see if counseling is the right next step for your teen.