As parents we understandably worry about our children, some would say its part of our Job Description….
Regardless of what stage in life our children are, we never really stop worrying about them as all we ever want is what’s best for them especially when we see our children struggling.
It’s an even greater challenge as they grow from a child into a teenager as we tend to know less and less about their lives as they naturally become more independent; this can sometimes feel like they’re being secretive, excluding you, and making poor choices without speaking with you first.
In reality this is part and parcel of growing and maturing, however their detachment and lack of communication or engagement with you can make it difficult to decide if they are anxious, stressed or have a form of depression as teenagers tend to be this way; many of the symptoms describe any ‘moody teenager’, therefore our challenge as parents is to uncover if their behaviour is hiding something more serious.
In the UK, one in ten children aged between 5 – 16 yrs. suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, this equates to around 3 children for every class room.
What are the Signs for Anxiety, Stress and Depression?
It’s so hard to identify whether or not your child has a mental health issue as children and young people go through extended periods of change due to the fact that their mind, character and personality are constantly evolving….
Some of the early warning signs of anxiety, stress & depression could just be a momentary issue, a bad day or a period of social awkwardness.
However, as a parent you know your own child, you can assess if these are subtle or marked changes in their behaviour. Anxiety and depression affect different people in different ways. Symptoms can include:
- Outbursts of anger
- Constant feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt or worthlessness
- Emotionally withdrawn behaviours
- Significant Avoidance Behaviours with family, friends or social situations
- Low self-esteem
- Being self-critical
- Highly sensitive to rejection
- All or nothing thinking
- No obvious reason for anxious feelings
- A sudden increase or decrease in appetite
- Outbursts or crying
- Continually checking to see if things are right
- Poor concentration
- Reduced ability to understand simple tasks
- Signs of self-harm
- Feeling exhausted and with no energy
- A lack of interest in doing things, especially activities they normally enjoyed
It is very easy to be overly concerned when your child reacts and responds differently than they used to, your focus should be on what gives you a particular cause for concern and to deal with this first in a measured response.
Just because your child is experiencing one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean they’re definitely affected by anxiety, stress or depression. The symptoms listed above don’t apply to all children as some will exhibit obvious symptoms while others will display very little, that being said it’s important to talk to your GP to get a full diagnosis.
What Is Anxiety, Stress and Depression?
For teenagers or anyone else, anxiety is a normal reaction to prolonged stress. For example, studying for tests, meeting new people, speaking publicly, going on a date or competing in a sports event can make them feel apprehensive or uneasy. However some teenagers react more strongly to stressful situations than others.
Sometimes it’s thinking and worrying unduly about these situations that can cause great distress.
Anxiety and stress are good for us as it increases the levels of adrenalin in our system and helps us to react and rise to the challenge in a focused and highly responsive way.
For instance, if they’re studying for their driving test, a little anxiety can make them study harder and focus in on the subject so that they’ll do well and pass their driving test. But at other times, anxiety can be harmful; especially when it is excessive and irrational, and prolonged this has a negative effect on their focus as there seems to be no end in sight this unless managed can lead to depression.
Sometimes the anxiety comes between friends, especially if they are avoiding people because they’re panicked and tense. This level of anxiety is harmful and that’s when they need to do something that helps them feel less anxious and stressed as they need to see life as something that can be enjoyed.
How Can Teens Cope with Anxiety?
Many teenagers find ways to cope with the high levels of anxiety that they feel. It’s important that they recognise their emotions, to know what they’re feelings and why they’re feeling this way. Recognising the types of situations that cause anxiety is helpful as you can then discover how to cope and manage in certain circumstances or conditions others you may just decide to avoid. If you try these simple measures and still have too much anxiety, getting treatment from a care professional or therapist is the obvious next step.
What can parents do to help?
It is really important that we as parent understand that although we would do anything at all to help our children we are not always the help our children want, as to them we may be perceived as part of the problem not the solution.
They actually may not see us as a problem it just might be that actually they know they feel awful but simply don’t know what to say as they just can’t put their feelings into words.
When statistics show that over 8,000 children in the UK, under the age of 10 suffer from severe depression it’s very rarely just down to having a quick chat to see if they’re willing to open up.
Using the following as foundations to support your child
Give them Love:
I know it goes without saying to most of us that we think it’s obvious to think that our kids know we love them but to reassure them that they have your love and support as this makes such a difference.
Especially if they have low self-worth, they might not really still believe that you love them when they feel and behave this way, reassure them and even if this prompts a negative reaction designed to make you rebuke their comments.
Try to resist any urge to do this as all this will do is deepen the hurt for you both and also widen the distance between you. This can also exacerbate their isolation and reinforce their view that they don’t matter.
To your child, they are going through a difficult, scary and lonely time and they need to see if they can process this to make some sense of what has happened. They probably want to say what they’re thinking but this will take time to find the right words.
There is an old saying that “patience is a virtue, possess it if you can” which is very true and we need to cultivate the art to help our child who is acting in a very challenging way to not face this challenging behaviour. What we need to do is to see their erratic behaviour and frustrations as what they are, and to recognise that refusing to either react or retaliate, but to support them patiently, lovingly and with common sense, ensuring that they don’t present any danger to themselves or others, really is the best approach.
Counter their thinking:
By countering their thinking we mean questioning any negative statement your child makes about themselves. Instinctively we want to counter their thinking, but will only make the situation worse, however highlighting all the positives over the negatives in order to help them think differently will really help.
Your positive comments won’t necessarily be well received by them, but this is a more positive approach than telling them they’re wrong to think the way they do. Patience is your greatest tool as if takes time to create new pathways of thinking and just as their negative thoughts didn’t happen overnight the creation of new positive thoughts will take time too.
What help and support should we encourage
Encourage your child to take the first step – depression can affect anyone, and they deserve help to feel better. Let them talk to someone they like and trust, like a teacher, relative, counsellor or friend.
They should also see their GP. They may offer to refer them to the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS), an expert or a psychiatrist who can help them.
Exercise – this is the most important activity teenagers can do. Lots of teenagers think the idea of exercise is daft, since weight & fitness isn’t exactly a teenager problem. But exercise does more than get them out in the fresh air and build up their muscles, it also releases chemical endorphins such as serotonin (our happy hormone) into the brain which improves mood and relaxation, and tires muscles to decrease anxiety symptoms. It’s one of the most valuable tools for controlling anxiety a person can integrate into their lives. In fact a 20 minute brisk walk has the same effect on our bodies as half a Valium….
A Healthy Diet – a healthy body is as important as a healthy mind, in fact the two are linked as a healthy heart, lungs and muscles lessen the strain that anxiety causes the body, and allow a teenager to participate comfortably in healthy stress-relieving leisure activities such as running, biking, hiking or swimming. Additionally, a healthy body improves self-image, which is fragile during teenage years.
Positive Feedback – Letting your teenager know that they are worthwhile and can do whatever they set their minds to will help them to retain a sense of self-worth as a person when mood swings and teenage drama get them down. Even when they do something daft due to a lack of judgment, it is good to be as supportive as possible.
A Supportive Attitude – Even when your teenagers desires and dreams seem unreasonable or far-fetched, bear in mind that the logic and judgment centres of their brains have yet to develop and that they are more likely to want to do the opposite of what you say than to follow through with doing something you casually approve of. This type of attitude will limit stress on your teenager by making them feel as though they have someone on their side, and also limit strain in familial relationships.
Meditation is a great way for teenagers to get time to themselves and also a method of teaching them to discipline their minds and bodies to work for rather than against them. Learning controlled breathing techniques and how to relax their minds at will help them to cope with all the stresses they face on a daily basis and provide them with a drug and risk-free method of escaping reality.
Joining a Club – Finding a club to join is a good idea even for teenagers that aren’t as comfortable in social situations. Clubs allow teenagers to engage in activities they are passionate about, with people who share the same interests, rather than forcing them to assimilate to fit in socially and have friends. Having people to talk to and stuff to do, whether it’s knitting, reading, playing chess or protecting animal rights, is a reliable way to relieve stress and promote positivity and purpose.
Self-Help Books – Self-help books are a more private way of seeking help, as they offer support from peers who have gone through or are going through similar challenges. These types of resources can provide a teenager with tips and philosophies to help them to cope better with their anxiety symptoms and to prevent anxiety from controlling their lives.
Therapy provides a teen with someone to talk to about their anxiety on a regular basis and to offer them support and help when they have trouble finding it elsewhere. It teaches coping mechanisms to teenagers for dealing with the causes of their anxiety and helps to uncover the negative beliefs and thought patterns the teenager may believe that’s lead to them feeling anxious. Altering these beliefs and unhealthy thought patterns is often a crucial step towards defeating teenage anxiety.
Keeping a Journal – Keeping a daily journal is a great way to facilitate the process of uncovering negative beliefs and thought patterns that contribute to anxiety, stress and depression as well as providing teens with a healthy, creative and productive outlet for their thoughts and feelings.
Ensuring that your teenagers have positive and supportive family relations and that they have healthy outlets for their minds and bodies to work out the stress can have a huge impact on limiting how deeply teenage anxiety will affect them.
Types and Symptoms of Anxiety in Teens
The way symptoms of particular anxiety disorders manifest in children and adolescents often differ slightly from the way the symptoms of the same disorders manifest in adults. For this reason it is important to familiarize yourself with the behaviours associated with the teenage versions of various anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders among adolescents. It is marked by intense, unrealistic and uncontrollable anxieties connected to multiple (rather than a singular) objects, ideas and/or situations. A teen with GAD is likely to express concerns about how others perceive them, the safety of family members, and have negative feelings about the future. They will often seek reassurance from friends and from adults to the uncontrollable nature of their anxiety. They may also display conforming behaviour, intense self-criticism and difficulty concentrating.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – SAD is the most common of anxiety disorders. People with SAD experience intense fear and discomfort in social situations to the degree that their functionality in such situations is impaired. Excessive blushing, shaking, stammering, sweating, rapid speech and nausea are often present. In teens in particular, SAD increases the likelihood of drug and alcohol use as a coping mechanism and can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. Teens with SAD may spend most of their time alone or with only one or two close friends, avoid joining clubs or doing after school activities at school and receive low grades in participation in classes even when their other scores are high. They may be shy, although not all shyness is social anxiety disorder.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – It is estimated that OCD affects 2-3% of children and adolescents. Adolescents with OCD will experience intrusive thoughts and images and engage in compulsive ritual actions in response to these intrusive thoughts in ways that interfere with their daily lives. It is important to diagnose this condition early on, as an estimated 10% of adolescents with OCD will attempt suicide either in their youth or as adults, so this is an important disorder to watch out for.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – PTSD, while more common in adults, does also occur in teens. There are some studies that indicate teens can actually develop brain dysfunction if they have had untreated PTSD since childhood, possibly because of the way it affects brain development. PTSD usually occurs when a person experiences a traumatic event, and in some cases if they witness a traumatic event. The symptoms include increased awareness of dangerous situations and increased stress related to them, vivid flashbacks (during waking hours and/or when asleep), heightened startle response, and panic attacks. The symptoms must last four weeks or more for the disorder to be diagnosed as PTSD. If the symptoms last 4 weeks or less, it is considered a panic disorder.
Panic Disorder – Panic attacks generally involve three or more of the following symptoms: a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, dizziness, nausea, derealisation and an intense fear of dying. The events may also cause health anxiety. Panic disorder in adolescents is defined by reoccurring panic attacks that may be either unpredictable (not connected to a particular environmental trigger), situationally bound (dependent on an unavoidable in the presence of the environmental trigger) or situationally predisposed (meaning that the presence of a specific environmental trigger sometimes but not always results in a panic attack). After 10 minutes the panic attack will usually have peaked and begun to subside.
Separation Anxiety – Separation anxiety used to only be classifiable if the teenager is under 18 years of age, but it has recently been added to the DSM-V. It is identifiable by an intense uneasiness due to either the thought or the reality of being separated from a place or people with whom they are strongly emotionally connected. It is considered a disorder based on the appropriateness of the feelings considering the teen’s level of developmental advancement, and based on whether or not the feelings are interfering with their ability to visit friends or attend school.
General Phobias – A teen may develop a phobia as a result of a traumatic incident involving a particular stimulus, due to fears learned from parents at a young age, or for reasons that may never be entirely clear. Phobias in teens manifest in much the same way as they do in adults. Phobic teens feel intense nervousness and fear when confronted by certain stimuli and avoid those stimuli whenever possible.