Help Your Teen Cope With Anxiety

As many as one-quarter of teens ages 13 to 18 have met the criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the most common anxiety disorder, is characterized by general chronic worrying, nervousness, or tension. While everyone has periods of anxiety, it becomes a problem when it persists and interferes in day-to-day functioning.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some teens have difficulty differentiating between danger and safety, which leads them to struggle with pervasive stress and anxiety. When scientists presented teens with a threatening stimulus in the lab, they observed increased activity in brain areas (the amygdale and hippocampus) involved in fear learning, creating and filing new memories, and the flight-or-fight response. In contrast, adult brains were more active in the region where people make reasoned judgments about what is safe or dangerous (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which matures after adolescence. This may be why teens are less able to form clear threat categories. It may also explain why teens generally report more worries and are often vulnerable to stress-related problems.

While school age children tend to worry about injury, death, and natural events such as storms, preadolescents and adolescents become anxious around school performance, social status, and health issues. Unfortunately, children may not realize that their anxiety is disproportionate to the situation. When stress overwhelms teens, it can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, physical illness, and poor coping skills.

Helping Your Teen Cope With Stress

  • Monitor your teen's stress level and step in if you see it affecting her health, behavior, thoughts, or feelings.
  • Encourage your teen to talk about what is causing her stress. Listen carefully and help her identify healthy ways of dealing with her stress. Be alert for unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse.
  • Learn and model stress management skills.
  • Support your teen's involvement in sports and other social activities.
  • Seek treatment when anxiety persists. About 70 percent of teens who undergo high-quality cognitive behavioral therapy (with or without medications) improve.
  • Focus on process (studying for the test) instead of outcome (the grade).
  • Help your teen develop healthy habits. Taking care of the basics-diet, sleep, and exercise-can reduce stress and anxiety. In fact, preliminary studies show that better diets are associated with better mental health in adolescents.
  • Take signs of stress and anxiety seriously. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric conditions in adolescents and tend to persist into adulthood.


National Institute of Mental Health. "Teen Brain Less Discerning of Threat vs. Safety, More Vulnerable to Stress." Science Update. Web. 28 April 2011.

Lau, Jennifer Y., Britton, Jennifer C., Nelson, Eric E., Angold, Adrian, Ernst, Monique, Goldwin, Michelle, Grillon, Christian, Leibenluft, Ellen, Lissek,Shmuel, Norcross, Maxine, Shiffrin, Nina, and Pine, Daniel S. "Distinct neural signatures of threat learning in adolescents and adults." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 108(11) (2011): 4500-4505. Web. 23 February 2011.

National Institute of Mental Health. "Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents (Fact Sheet)." Web. 29 April 2011.

National Institute of Mental Health. "Computer-Based Treatment Eases Anxiety Symptoms in Children."

Science Update. Web. 13 March 2012.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Helping Teenagers With Stress." Web. May 2005.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Anxiety Disorder FAQs." Web.

Smith, Melinda, M.A., Jaffe-Gill, Ellen, M.A., and Segal, Jeanne, Ph.D. "Generalized Anxiety Disorder." Web. January 2012.

Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "Helping teens with stress." Web.

Muscari, Mary E., PhD, CPNP, PMHCNS-BC. "When Is 'Anxiety' an Anxiety Disorder in Children?" Medscape Medical News. Web. 28 October 2011.

Cassels, Caroline. "More Evidence Confirms Diet's Link to Mental Health." Medscape Medical News. Web. 14 October 2011.