What if I make a fool of myself in front of the whole school?
You likely can remember having some of these same worries when you were a teenager. So how can you know whether your son or daughter is experiencing typical worries or actual anxiety? It can be hard as many teens don’t know what it is they are experiencing, or even if they do, they may be too nervous to talk to their parents about it. The following are observable symptoms I often see in the teens in my practice that can help you to identify if your son or daughter may need professional help for their anxiety.
Do not use this list to diagnose, it is meant only as a guide. The more signs that apply to your teen, the more likely they are to qualify for an anxiety disorder diagnosis.
25 Signs of teen anxiety
1. Editing school work constantly trying to achieve perfection. They hold themselves up to a very high standard and feel they are a failure if they don’t reach it.
2. Avoiding activities that they do not believe they can achieve an arbitrary level of success in. Your teen worries they won’t do well and therefore instead of feeling anxiety and embarassment they choose to avoid the situation altogether.
3. They consistently procrastinate on their school work. They get into a cycle of becoming upset and overwhelmed by the work, distracting themselves with other activities, and then feeling even more overwhelmed and anxious.
4. Avoiding socializing with others. If they are avoiding socializing because they feel awkward or uncomfortable with others it can be a sign of social anxiety.
5. Not wanting to drive even though they are of age to get a license. You likely remember that when you were a teenager you couldn’t wait to get your license. I see a lot of teens who don’t want to get their license even when they are of legal age. The thought of driving and the responsibility that comes with it creates anxiety for them
6. Experiencing frequent headaches, stomachaches, nausea, and/or gastrointestinal issues not explained by a medical condition. If you teen is experiencing any of these symptoms and a competent doctor rules out physical causes, you may consider whether stress and emotions are the culprit. There is a mind-body connection and we often experience headaches with stress and gastrointestinal issues with anxiety (think butterflies in the tummy).
7. Poor memory or concentration. Many disorders have an overlap of symptoms. Poor memory or concentration could be a sign of ADD/ADHD, depression, anxiety, or even PTSD. I often have clients come in with a diagnosis of ADHD when really their inability to concentrate is due to being distracted by anxious thoughts and feelings.
8. Adults characterizing child as “difficult”. Anxiety that is not managed well can create a multitude of symptoms in children and teens that can look like they are just being “difficult”. These can include irritability, becoming quiet and withdrawn, not listening, arguing and yelling, and acting out/having a meltdown.
9. Sleep difficulties such as not being able to fall asleep, stay asleep, or having nightmares. Many people experience difficulty shutting their brains off at night and this is especially the case with those with anxiety. The mind may have difficulty letting go of worries and can continue to try to process information and solve issues while trying to fall asleep. Some wake up due to nightmares that reflect their anxious thoughts. Overall, the increased heart rate associated with anxiety makes it difficult to sleep. You may also find that they have difficulty in sleeping alone.
10. Avoiding new or uncomfortable situations. Many people find new situations to be scary when they don’t know what to expect. Teens with anxiety may show signs of trying to avoid these situations or if they aren’t able to they may shows signs such as shakiness in their body or voice, staying to themselves, or avoiding specific aspects that would increase their anxiety.
11. They get easily flustered by new people or those they perceive as “above them” or authority figures. Socializing with others is one of the most frequent areas that teens experience anxiety in. You may notice a shaky voice or difficulty expressing their thoughts clearly when talking to others that they aren’t comfortable with.
12. They become quiet or withdrawn around new people or authority figures. You hear reports from teachers that they do not speak out in class. You hear them make comments that they wouldn’t think of talking to someone that they consider to be more popular.
13. Resistance to trying new things. Due to the difficulty with not knowing what to expect and the worry of making a mistake or looking silly, they will resist trying new things.
14. Fidgeting in new or uncomfortable situations. Anxiety is experienced as excess energy in the body. They may feel the urge to pace, tap their foot, or rub their hands as well as other fidgeting behaviors.
15. Avoiding eye contact. Maintaining eye contact can be difficult when they are upset, uncomfortable, or anxious. They may be lost in their own thoughts including allowing negative scenarios to play through their mind.
16. Avoids making phone calls. This may be partly due to teens relying so heavily on texting and other social media apps and not gaining experience in talking on the phone to strangers, but anxious teens often do not want to make phone calls, even to order their favorite pizza.
17. Avoids talking to cashiers, wait staff, or other employees in public places. Asking for help can be anxiety provoking for some people and they will avoid it at all costs. Especially when they feel that they should know the answer or worry about how they will be perceived for asking. For others, it is just another time they have to talk to a stranger. Just notice if your teen wants you to order for them when out at a restaurant or won’t talk to others.
18. Excessive worry about upsetting others. Of course we want our kids to be mindful of how their actions affect others but if they are overly cautious about this it could be a sign of anxiety.
19. Expressing worries or fears frequently. People talk about what is on their mind. If your teen talks frequently about worries or fears then this is a good sign that they are feeling anxious often. You may also hear them predicting negative outcomes such as “I just know I’ll make a fool of myself.”
20. Frequent negative self-talk. If you hear your teen put themselves down often this could be a sign of depression, low self-esteem, or anxiety. Negative statements that are more likely indicative of anxiety would sound like “I’m gonna fail”, “no one likes me”, or “I sound so stupid”.
21. You have difficulty calming them down when they are upset. Once they start to become anxious they are operating from their amygdala. The frontal cortex, which is responsible for reasoning, goes offline. They are emotional and not thinking clearly, making it more difficult for you to reassure them and help them to calm down.
22. They become irritable easily. Anxiety is a state of heightened alarm with increased cortisol and adrenaline in the body. This can make people feel on edge and cause them to become more irritable.
23. Changes in eating habits. Some people experience nausea and lose their appetite when they are anxious. Others go into stress eating and will eat to soothe their feelings.
24. Experimening with drugs and alcohol. Without having tools to help manage difficult emotions it is easy for teens and young adults to turn to substances. Teens often use Marijuana, alcohol, and nicotine to calm the body and manage feelings of anxiety.
25. They have other diagnoses such as depression or ADD/ADHD. As you may have noticed there is a lot of overlap in symptomology for some of these disorders. It can take a trained professional to try to differentiate between disorders and in many cases, having one diagnosis can make you more susceptible to others. For instance, about 1/3 of people with ADD/ADHD also have anxiety. Anxiety can also lead to feelings of depression or can fuel depressive feelings.
As a parent it can be heartbreaking…
To watch your child move through life with anxiety and fear while they avoid situations that can bring them happiness and success. It’s hard to know they are not reaching their full potential due to holding back or self-sabotage.
What to do if you think your teen is experiencing anxiety
If you think that your teen is anxious then I suggest talking to them about it. See if they would be willing to go to counseling to learn ways to manage and possibly even overcome their anxiety.