Anxiety is a natural and important emotion that everyone experiences. It signals that danger or a sudden, threatening change is near. Yet sometimes anxiety becomes an exaggerated, unhealthy response to non-threatening experiences. Nearly one-third of American adolescents and adults are affected by anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is the most common mental health disorder in the country.

Given the array of changes and uncertainties facing a normal teenager, anxiety often hums along like background noise. For some, anxiety becomes a chronic, high-pitched state, interfering with school attendance and academic performance. Participating in extracurricular activities, making and keeping friends and maintaining a supportive, flexible relationship within the family can become difficult.

We spoke with Le Bonheur’s Medical Director of Psychiatric Services Valerie Arnold, MD, about the signs of anxiety in teens and treatment options.

Anxiety is expected and normal at specific times in a child’s development. From approximately age 8 months through preschool, healthy children may show intense distress at times of separation from their parents or other people with whom they are close. Anxious kids are often overly tense or uptight. Some may seek a lot of reassurance, and their worries may interfere with activities. Parents should not dismiss their child’s fears. Because anxious children may also be quiet and eager to please, parents should be alert to the signs of severe anxiety so they can intervene early to prevent complications.

Symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Constant thoughts and intense fears about the safety of parents and caretakers
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Frequent stomachaches and other physical complaints
  • Extreme worries about sleeping away from home
  • Being overly clingy
  • Panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents
  • Trouble sleeping or nightmares

Symptoms of phobia include:

  • Extreme fear about a specific thing or situation (i.e. dogs, insects, or needles)
  • Fears causing significant distress and interfering with usual activities

Symptoms of social anxiety include:

  • Fears of meeting or talking to people
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Few friends outside the family

Other symptoms of anxious adolescents include:

  • Many worries about things before they happen
  • Constant worries or concerns about family, school, friends, or activities
  • Repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or actions (compulsions)
  • Fears of embarrassment or making mistakes
  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence

Severe anxiety problems in kids can be treated. Treatments may include a combination of: individual psychotherapy, family therapy, medications, behavioral treatments and consultation to the school.

If anxieties begin to interfere with an adolescent’s usual activities, parents should consider seeking an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional or a child and adolescent psychiatrist. To make an appointment at Le Bonheur, call 1-866-870-5570.

Additional source of information for this article: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry