Updated on July 20, 2023
The past five years have seen an alarming increase in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in teenagers. Adolescent psychologists point to the COVID-19 pandemic as a leading cause of the rise in GAD.
Numerous school shootings, the rise in violence on the streets, economic instability, and the loss of one or more parents to COVID are other contributors to anxiety disorders in teens.
The prevalence of GAD in teens is high. In the United States, it affects about two percent of teens. At least eight percent of teens are experiencing or will experience symptoms of GAD at some point.
An estimated 31.9% of adolescents have an anxiety disorder. Of adolescents with any anxiety disorder, an estimated 8.3% had severe impairment. DSM-IV criteria were used to determine impairment.1
Some teens may suffer panic attacks from dealing with GAD. Others may turn to substance abuse to cope with anxiety or make a suicide attempt when they are so overwhelmed by anxiety that suicide ideation is constantly in their thoughts.
What is GAD? What symptoms should parents be aware of that might indicate their child has an anxiety disorder? How can parents help a teen with a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder?
If you are the parent of a teenager with anxiety, this article will answer these and other questions, provide valuable tips for comforting teens with GAD, and offer information about the benefits of a therapeutic boarding school for anxiety.
What Exactly is Anxiety?
Although it seems like anxious people are fearful of something, anxiety is not fear. Anxiety is the belief that something that may or may not be a threat to your well-being. On the other hand, fear is real.
Fear emerges when someone is faced with an impending, tangible threat to your existence–a vicious, stray dog or a burglar breaking into your home, for example. True anxiety comes from thinking obsessively about the future and assuming nothing but bad things will happen.
Teens with GAD may constantly ruminate about “what ifs.”
- What if my parents lose their jobs?
- What if I can’t pass any of my exams?
- What if my best friend decides to dump me for another friend?
- What if somebody starts shooting kids at my school?
Psychologists believe anxiety disorders like GAD and panic disorder in teens are caused by the interaction of environmental and biological factors. Teens with anxious family members may be predisposed genetically to also be anxious.
An imbalance of neurotransmitters also plays a role in the development of GAD in teens. Children who experience traumatic events, such as the death of a parent, divorced parents, or the diagnosis of a chronic medical condition (juvenile diabetes, asthma, etc.) are at an increased risk for anxiety disorders.
Teen Anxiety and Social Media
A recent Pew Research study found that 45% of teenagers admit to staying online day and night, constantly interacting with other teens on social media sites.
A study involving over 600 teens who are active social media users discovered a clear association between suicide ideation and social media addiction, with nearly 23 percent of respondents reporting having thoughts of suicide just a month before they took the survey.
Cyberbullying on social media sites is the #1 cause of the skyrocketing rates of suicide among teens.
Another reason is what psychologists refer to as “fear of missing out,” or FOMO.
Ask any teen why they constantly check their Instagram or Facebook, and they’ll likely reply: “I don’t want to miss out on anything.”
This almost obsessive-like need to know what everybody else is doing, saying or posting can contribute to GAD in teenagers who may be addicted to social media.
In addition, all parents of teens are also aware of how much time an adolescent spends on making friends on social media just to increase their number of “followers” and “likes.”
Being popular and admired for their physical features is so important to most teens that they do not think about the consequences of posting a controversial or ambiguous image of themselves.
Federal and state governments have implemented many suicide awareness programs and hotlines for teens who are thinking about suicide due to cyberbullying, social media-caused anxiety, instability at home, and other reasons.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Signs of anxiety that may indicate GAD include:
- Excessively worrying about things that may not happen
- Feeling apprehensive and fearful for no apparent reason for at least six months
- Cannot stop “thinking” about worrying/constantly anticipating something bad will happen
- Anxiety significantly impairs a teen’s involvement in social and academic activities
- Isolating themselves from family and friends
- Loss of appetite or increased appetite
- Stomach aches, digestive issues, headaches and other manifestations of stress and anxiety
- Complaining they can’t sleep/complaining of feeling exhausted all the time
- Uncharacteristic use of drugs and alcohol
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Refusing to attend school, especially if bullying is a factor
- Extreme fatigue (often mistaken for depression)
Parents may have more difficulty noticing physical symptoms of GAD. Teens can often hide physical symptoms better than behavioral symptoms by retreating to their bedroom and waiting for these signs to subside:
- Pounding heart/palpitations
- Profuse sweating/cold chills
- Chest discomfort
- Rapid breathing/hyperventilation
- Muscle tension and aches
- Numbness and tingling of the hands due to hyperventilating
People with GAD of all ages may develop agoraphobia because they are afraid to go outside and encounter something that may trigger their anxiety.
For example, a teenager who fears running into a peer who might invite them to a get-together could become agoraphobic. Teens with GAD and panic disorder are more likely to develop phobias due to fearing a panic attack.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic disorder can be an even more crippling psychological condition than generalized anxiety disorder. Causing sudden and severe symptoms of extreme anxiety, panic disorders are characterized by the following:
- Uncontrollable feelings of terror, dread and apprehension
- Pounding heart (tachycardia)
- Profuse sweating, dizziness, and weakness
- Chest pain/heaviness
- Numbness and tingling of hands and feet
- Sensations of unreality, impending doom, and depersonalization
- Fear of dying or losing control
Panic attacks are unpredictable and may even happen during sleep. Typically lasting about 10 to 15 minutes, panic attacks leave the person feeling extremely drained, weak, and confused.
Another type of panic disorder called anticipatory panic disorder happens when teens suffer from repeated panic attacks because they consciously anticipate the panic attack happening again.
Consequently, teens with anticipatory panic disorder are intensely preoccupied worrying about surviving the next attack.
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What Causes Panic Disorder in Teens?
Research has yet to pinpoint an exact cause of panic disorder but many theories exist regarding its development. Having a history of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, substance abuse, and an inherited tendency to anxiety disorders are thought to play roles in the development of panic disorder.
The neuroscience behind panic disorder suggests an association with chemical imbalances in the limbic system involving GABA-A, a neurochemical responsible for regulating the “fight or flight” response to perceived dangers.
ADHD in Teens and Anxiety
While most children with an attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD) are diagnosed with the disorder by the time they are five or six years old, symptoms of anxiety disorders may not be recognized until the child enters middle school and begins experiencing peer pressure, self-esteem issues, and the realization they are “different” from other kids.
Teens with ADHD often are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder as an outgrowth of their ADHD symptoms.
For example, children with ADHD who have difficulty completing schoolwork on time may be scolded in front of their classmates by an uninformed teacher. When they reach adolescence, they will worry more about being able to finish an in-class assignment to avoid having negative attention drawn to them.
Eventually, teens with ADHD begin having more trouble socially and academically because they are so consumed with their anticipatory worries and anxiety.
Therapeutic Interventions for Teens with GAD
An adolescent boarding school for anxiety treatment offers a structured environment in which teens receive counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and education about why it is difficult to manage anxious feelings and thoughts.
Parents of teens attending a therapeutic boarding school for anxiety can also learn more about the reasons teens have GAD. These reasons may include:
- Ineffective problem-solving and coping skills
- Previous trauma
- Emotional hyperarousal
- Maladaptive management of emotions
- Interpersonal issues
- Poor self-esteem
- Avoidance personality traits
Psychologists employ cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and acceptance and commitment therapy to treat teens at a therapeutic boarding school for anxiety. CBT helps teens understand how and why their feelings and thoughts influence behavior by introducing them to exposure therapy, principles of thought restructuring, and relaxation techniques.
How Can Parents Help Teens with GAD?
Don’t hesitate to ask for support from family, friends, church members, and support groups. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. You may be surprised at how many people didn’t realize you were dealing with a teen with GAD. They will be more than happy to help you if they had known what you were experiencing.
Make time each day to spend quality time with your teen. Sit on the front porch with your teen in the evening and talk one-on-one, walk in the park with your teen, take them to a movie they really want to see–do anything that provides your teen the opportunity to open up about their anxiety.
Reassure and explain why a specific “worry” will likely not happen. People with GAD are so consumed with anxious thoughts they cannot identify the irrationalities of their anxiety. Help change the way your teen perceives reality by talking them through their worries or phobias.
Talk to your teen’s school principal about receiving reasonable accommodations. When GAD severely interferes with your child’s ability to remain in school, your child may be eligible for certain protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
1Based on diagnostic interview data from National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), Figure 3 shows lifetime prevalence of any anxiety disorder among U.S. adolescents aged 13-18.
Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27. PMID: 15939839