When Anxiety In Teens Runs Rampant In Your Teenager’s Friend Circle
Friendships are critical during life, but especially in the teen years. Research has shown that close friendships and efforts to conform to peer norms in adolescence are linked to health and mental health in the long run. So, what’s a parent to do when anxiety in teens is rampant among their closest friends – an experience you definitely don’t want your teen regularly conforming to?
First, you need to know that both depression and anxiety in teens is on the rise among American youth. It cuts across gender, racial and socio-economic lines. And 70% of teens today see depression and anxiety as major problems among their peer regardless of whether they suffer themselves.
In 2018, the CDC reported that 7.1% of children ages 3 through 17 had a current anxiety diagnosis. And of those with a diagnosis, a bit more than half (59.3%) received treatment.
If you are noticing the signs of anxiety in teens in your teen’s friend circle, or in your teen, you’re not alone. And you can definitely do something about it.
First, it’s important to know that all anxiety in teens isn’t necessary bad. Anxiety is fundamentally a normal and useful emotion. It alerts us to something we care about and provides the energy we need to take action.
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways and will vary from situation to situation and person to person. It also varies by age – anxiety in teens is biologically different from anxiety in adults. It is this uniqueness that has added to our general confusion about anxiety, and what can be normal about it.
To help conceptualize and simplify anxiety for the teens I work with, I have characterized three loose categories of anxiety based on the volume with which it is experienced at any given time. I call them yelling, chatter, and whisper anxiety.
Whisper anxiety is usually characterized by indirect physical signs such as:
- Skin picking, pulling out hair and/or nail biting
- Frequent headaches, including migraines
- Chronic upset stomach, irritable bowel, constipation, diarrhea
- Difficulty sleeping or excessive fatigue
- Changes in eating habits
Chatter anxiety is often accompanied by:
- Feeling edgy or riled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritable or restless
- Unexplained outbursts
Yelling anxiety in teens can be flagged by social signals:
- Avoiding social interactions with usual friends or isolating from their peer group
- Avoiding extracurricular activities
- Spending more time alone or isolated
- Poor school performance, missed assignments, or procrastination
It is important that we recognize that any of the above listed items can be expected in a teenager with healthy anxiety. So, we must focus not just on the occurrence of any of these signs, but on the patterns and frequency of symptoms to determine whether a teen’s anxiety has become unhealthy.
Another way to think about anxiety is not so much how it feels, but rather how it is affecting your teen’s and their friends’ performance.
“It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, it means we are growing.”
Healthy stress and anxiety are inevitable when we operate at the edge of our abilities – and aim to perform at our best. This is true for teens too. In fact, stress and anxiety are a normal and healthy part of a full, and growing life.
How to help our teens and their friends deal with anxiety
Chances are if you’re noticing anxiety symptoms in your teen’s friends, the other parents are too. By helping your teens beef up their conceptional knowledge of what anxiety in teens is and how they can manage their own anxiety, you will likely find that your teen and their friends will encourage and support each other in better dealing with anxiety – and know that they have access to parents who care about them.
The following 4 steps can guide you and the other parents to helping your teens know that you care about them.
1. Normalize anxiety and other feelings
Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences. It is a signal that there is something we care about that needs our attention and that we can take action to fix it.
As with any other emotion, when we fear anxiety, we escalate it. When we accept it for what it is, a normal emotion, we can use our anxiety and the information it carries as fuel to find solutions through growth, learning and adaptation.
2. Remind kids THEY are in control
Perhaps one of the most destructive key misconceptions about anxiety is that it is out of our control. And we know that one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences – perhaps the most – is a sense of being out of control, that something is happening to us.
But it turns out that how we think about anxiety and stress is very much within our control, and, in fact, defines its impact on us. A huge study of 28,000 people conducted at University of Wisconsin in 2012 found that how we thinkabout stress, not the amount of it, determines how it impacts us.
When we change our mindset about anxiety and stress, we can perform better. Studies have shown that perceiving stress as an adaptive resource helps improve performance. This doesn’t mean that the teens need to be convinced that stressful situations are not demanding, or uncomfortable. Rather, reappraising stress and anxiety as the adaptive resources they are appears to allow us to use it more effectively.
Further, how we label anxiety actually defines our experience of it. Lisa Feldman Barrett is at the forefront of the new science of emotional construction. She notes that how we think about our physiological experiences actually determines how we feelabout them.
At its most extreme, butterflies in our stomach don’t have to signal abject fear, they can signal excitement. It’s all in how we think about it.
The main idea is that the sensations we experience in our bodies are somewhat neutral until we define them. And when we label our emotions, we co-construct them.
Although we may not be able to control what happens externally, and how we physiologically react, we can control howwe think about what is inour control. When we choose how we think about our anxiety, we can influence how we experience it, its impact on us and how we perform.
3. Celebrate courage
When you talk with your teen and their friends about their days catch them succeeding. Ask about what they did today that was scary. Help them to recognize and celebrate the courage they exhibit on a daily basis. Remember, it is not easy being a teen and even small wins need to be acknowledged.
4. Discuss anxiety, and other emotions, conceptually
Let emotional awareness be a typical topic of family conversation and extend that to include your teen’s friends when they visit. Your teen and their friends may not be comfortable talking about themselves, but they will often talk about other friends, students, family members, and even media figures.
Whenver you can, aim to steer the conversations toward discussion of feelings and emotions so your teen can boost their emotional vocabulary. Research consistently shows the better able we can label our feelings, the better able we can manage them.
By remembering that some anxiety in teens is normal, you and the parents of your teen’s friends can help each of the kids navigate this often-misunderstood emotion and use it to fuel their future success. Understanding the signs of whisper, chatter and yelling anxiety can help you begin tracking your teen’s anxiety to understand when it may be time for you to more fully step into helping them.
As the African proverb states, it takes a village to raise a child. When you notice symptoms of anxiety in teens in your teen’s friend circle, know that you can support your child and their friends in creating the supportive, close ties that will help each of them be healthier, happier adults.
Looking for more resources to help your teen deal with anxiety? Check out my book Hack Your Anxiety full of straightforward anxiety hacks based on years in the trenches and the latest science, along with two chapters dedicated to support and parenting. Or post a comment here to continue the conversation.
Photo by Emilio Chavez on Unsplash.