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Anxiety in School: How Parents Can Help

Most teens get a little anxious about starting school. A certain amount of school-related anxiety is normal for adolescents. But when nervousness crosses over into full-fledged anxiety in school, teens need extra support.

Anxiety disorders in teenagers is increasingly common among adolescents. In fact, about 25 percent of American teens between the ages of 13 and 18 are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point.

Therefore, parents need to know how to recognize the difference between an anxiety disorder and normal levels of anxiety in school.

Back-to-School Anxiety—or a Teen Anxiety Disorder?

There is a significant difference between temporary anxiety over school and an anxiety disorder that requires professional treatment. For example, teens with an anxiety disorder experience very high levels of anxiety. Moreover, these feelings get worse over time, rather than improving on their own.

In addition, teens with anxiety disorders struggle with feelings of tension and fear. These symptoms are ongoing and interfere with daily activities. Furthermore, the disorder affects relationships with peers and family members.

While there are different types of teen anxiety disorders, many of these disorders manifest in a set of common symptoms. Here are some of the signs that a child is experiencing a level of anxiety that warrants an assessment by a mental health professional.

  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy

  • Withdrawing from social interactions

  • Trouble sleeping at night, but often seems fatigued during the day

  • Loss of appetite and other changes in eating habits

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Extreme mood swings

  • Performance dip in school, poor report cards, poor testing results

  • Frequent unexplained physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches

  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worthlessness

  • Using drugs and drinking as forms of self-medication for anxiety

  • Avoiding people, places, and things that trigger anxious feelings

Parents who recognize these symptoms in a teen should reach out for support and an expert assessment.

High School Anxiety

School and stress seem to go hand in hand for many teenagers. Anxiety at school is very common.

Moreover, anxiety disorders in teens aged 12 to 17 are on the rise. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and adolescence.

Research shows that high school students today have more anxiety symptoms and are twice as likely to see a mental health professional as teens in the 1980s.

Anxiety in College

It’s not just high school students who deal with anxiety in school. In addition, college students experience high anxiety levels.

Anxiety disorders are one of most common mental health problems on college campuses, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Here are some recent statistics from the ADAA:

  • 30 percent of college students report that stress negative impacts their academic performance

  • 85 percent of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do

  • 41.6 percent list anxiety as their top concern

  • 24.5 percent of college students reported taking psychotropic medication for anxiety or depression.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Teens

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the most common teen anxiety disorder. Onset can be as early as age 6, but symptoms usually appear around age 11.

This type of anxiety in teenagers involves excessive anxiety or worry over everyday events, which lasts for a prolonged period of time. Teens with generalized anxiety experience intense emotional stress. In addition, they have a range of anxiety-related symptoms, including those listed above. Moreover, teens with GAD typically experience excessive worrying and low self-esteem.

Researchers theorize that the causes of general anxiety disorder include a disruption in how the brain reacts to the signals it uses to identify and confront danger. Fortunately, however, GAD is very treatable.

Effective therapeutic modalities for teen anxiety include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Motivational Enhancement Therapy, and a wide range of experiential therapies. In fact, more than 40 randomized clinical trials support the efficacy of CBT for the treatment of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents.

Social Anxiety in School

Teens with social anxiety find school extremely challenging. Sometimes referred to as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is when a person is overcome with fear and worry in social settings. Therefore, this type of anxiety in teenagers negatively impacts a teen’s everyday activities, including time in school.

Typically, a person with a social phobia experiences intense anxiety that leads to deep feelings of embarrassment and fear of being judged by others. Consequently, a teen with social phobia often withdraws and avoids contact with peers and teachers. Thus, social anxiety can be paralyzing for teenagers in school.

Subsequent difficulties caused by social anxiety symptoms arise in school, at work, and in personal relationships. Therefore, teens who experience these symptoms for more than six months are often diagnosed with social anxiety.

Additional social anxiety symptoms include

  • Feeling nauseous

  • Sweating

  • Nervous shaking

  • Unexpected blushing

  • Fear of having to talk or perform in front of a group.

Teen Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks often begin in the late teens or early adulthood. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety attacks are reactions to external stressors, such as anxiety in school.

An anxiety attack is typically a symptom of an anxiety disorder. However, not everyone with an anxiety disorder will experience anxiety attacks.

A teenager undergoing an anxiety attack in school might experience any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling fearful or full of dread

  • Shortness of breath

  • Racing heart

  • Cold sweats

  • Dizziness and wooziness.

However, anxiety attacks tend to be short-lived. As a result, they pass once the stressor is removed. Therefore, teens with anxiety in school may experience such attacks during the school day, but not at home.

The Link Between Anxiety and Teen Substance Abuse

Research shows that teen anxiety is linked with increased substance use. That’s because teens with anxiety often use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate the painful feelings associated with the disorder. In one study of adolescents aged 13 to 18, teens with a psychiatric diagnosis were four times more likely to have tried illicit drugs.

Another study followed children who had been treated for anxiety disorders. Seven years after treatment, the adolescents who no longer suffered from anxiety were far less likely to abuse substances than those whose anxiety continued.

The study authors wrote, “Research suggests that the [results] of childhood anxiety disorders, if left untreated, can include substance abuse.”

Therefore, treating teen anxiety can also avoid the risk of substance abuse disorder.

Back-to-School Tips for Dealing with Anxiety

Parents can help their teens learn how to deal with anxiety in school. Furthermore, they can serve as role models for stress management.

“The biggest gift parents can give their kids is the ability to cope with stressful situations,” says Dr. Nosal. “And children learn by example. Therefore, parents need to be mindful of how they manage their own stress. In particular, that includes what they say and do in front of their children.”

Moreover, when parents are anxious, children not only sense it, but the stress also trickles down, Dr. Nosal says. “Children today are under enough stress of their own without taking on parental anxiety,” she notes.

Tools for Addressing Anxiety in School

Stress-relief tools give teens new, positive ways to respond to feelings of anxiety in school. Obtain some powerful back-to-school tips for parents to share with teens here. These approaches can help teenagers counteract school fears and build stress resilience.

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